Snapshot Report: 2015 PUC Complaint Data

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Electricity complaints filed with the Texas Public Utility Commission have fallen to a new post-electric deregulation low, according to a review of agency data.

All told, Texans filed 6,973 electricity-related complaints or inquiries during the most recent fiscal year. The previous low during the electric deregulation era came in FY 2013, when the PUC tallied 7,129 complaints and inquiries. The state deregulated most of its retail electricity market in 2002.

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But despite the encouraging numbers, complaints remain more numerous now than they were prior to the switch to deregulation. Also less encouraging is the dramatic uptick in complaints filed in FY 2015 against a single electric company — Dallas-based Sharyland Utilities.

This Snapshot Report is based upon a review of electricity complaints and inquiries filed with the PUC’s Office of Customer Protection, which was established in July 1997. The Texas Coalition for Affordable Power reviews this data on an annual basis.

All data are given for fiscal years and have been obtained under the Texas Open Records law or extrapolated from publicly available PUC reports and from newspaper accounts. Data for 1998, 1999 and 2000 are estimated figures. TCAP considers both complaints and inquiries in order to gauge general consumer sentiment and also to maintain a uniform methodology across the study period.

Upbeat Numbers for FY 2015

The FY 2015 data suggest that, overall, electric customer sentiment in Texas is improving. This year’s findings build upon similar upbeat analyses conducted by TCAP during FY 2014 and FY 2013.

For instance, other than the 2015 fiscal year, the two post-deregulation years in which the PUC registered the fewest electricity complaints and inquiries were FY 2014 and FY 2013. The PUC tallied about 2 percent fewer electricity-related complaints and inquiries during FY 2015 than it tallied in FY 2013, the previous low-water mark during the deregulation era.

The PUC also reported a drop in various discrete categories of electric complaints over the last fiscal year. These include a drop in meter complaints, provision of service complaints and those relating to “switch-holds,” which is the practice of blocking residential electric service.

While Texans filed fewer complaints in FY 2015, they nonetheless received more complaint-driven refunds in FY 2015 than during the previous fiscal year, according to PUC data.

However, one clear area of customer dissatisfaction relates to Sharyland Utilities, which is owned by the same party seeking to control the Oncor Electric utility as its parent Energy Future Holdings emerges from bankruptcy. Complaints against Sharyland skyrocketed to 437 in FY 2015 from 47 in FY 2014.

The complaints against the tiny utility were so numerous in 2015 that the Texas Public Utility Commission opened a special proceeding that resulted in a slight rate decrease for some customers.

For this analysis, TCAP reviewed all electricity-related complaints and electricity service inquiries reported to the PUC for each fiscal year since 1998. This analysis does not tabulate complaints filed directly with electric companies.

Texans can find complaint data for individual retail electric providers at the state’s electricity shopping website, powertochoose.org. On the site, companies are assigned weighted complaint rankings that take into account both the number of customers the company serves and the number of complaints the PUC has received about that company.

Key Findings:

  • The PUC recorded 6,973 electricity-related complaints or inquiries during the 2015 fiscal year. That’s the fewest tallied by the agency since retail electric deregulation began in 2002.
  • The average number of electricity-related complaints or inquiries filed on an annual basis since the retail electric deregulation law took effect is 10,566. The highest number of complaints filed during a single fiscal year was 17,250, during the second year of the retail electric deregulation law.
  • The average number of electricity-related complaints and inquiries filed with the PUC during each fiscal year prior to electric deregulation was 1,315.8. However, there are only four years of data for that analysis.
  • The average number of electricity-related complaints and inquiries filed with the PUC during each fiscal year prior to electric deregulation was 1,315.8. However, there are only four years of data for that analysis.
  • Complaints quadrupled with the transition to deregulation in 2002 and have never returned to pre-deregulation levels. Although population growth and the increased use of the Internet to facilitate the complaint process can explain some of the increase, it’s unlikely that those factors alone account for the dramatic differences — especially those registered during the early years of the deregulation law.
  • Although Texans filed fewer complaints in FY 2015 than they did in FY 2014, they nonetheless received more complaint-generated refunds in FY 2015 than during the previous year. According to PUC records, Texans who filed complaints with the PUC received $450,183 in refunds during the 2015 fiscal year, or about 6.7 percent more than the $421,862 awarded during the 2014 fiscal year.
  • The plurality of complaints and inquiries submitted to the PUC in FY 2015 relate to electric bills. Approximately 48 percent related to billing and another 14 percent related to provision of service. In FY 2014, 42 percent related to billing and 17 percent related to provision of service.
  • The PUC received more than nine times the number of complaints and inquiries against Dallas-based Sharyland Utilities in FY 2015 than it received against the Dallas-based company in FY 2014.  Sharyland serves retail customers in West Texas. Most of the complaints and inquiries relate to rates and bill charges.

SHARYLAND COMPLAINTS SKYROCKET

Media reports describe Sharyland electric bills as two or three times higher than those typically found elsewhere. In October, the PUC authorized a slight decrease in Sharyland rates.1 The owners of Sharyland are in negotiations to purchase Oncor, the state’s largest transmission and distribution utility.

1 “Sharyland customers to see slight rate decrease,” staff reports, Midland Reporter-Telegram, Oct. 8, 2015.

  • Complaints and inquiries were up from last year in a few discrete categories — including a nearly 5 percent increase related to billing. In FY 2015, billing complaints and inquiries numbered 3,332. That’s up from the 3,178 in FY 2014 and 2,862 in FY 2013.
  • The PUC in FY 2015 registered 953 complaints or inquiries for provision of service, 772 for discontinuance of service, 651 for meters and 628 for slamming, which is the practice of switching a consumer’s service provider without authorization.
  • The practice by some companies of ordering holds on customer accounts generated 82 complaints in FY 2015. Under controversial “switch hold” rules approved by the PUC, some households can be barred from the retail electric market if they get behind in their payments or if they are accused of tampering with their utility meters.
  • According to recent weighted complaint rankings from the PUC (as of March 1, 2015 through August 31, 2015), retail electric providers with the worst complaint rankings included TruSmart Energy (formerly DPI Energy), Hino Electric, Potentia Energy (also known as Verde Energy) and Brooklet Energy Distribution (also known as Acacia Energy).
  • Potentia and Hino also were among companies with the highest complaint ratings in a survey last year. Acacia Energy was among those with the highest complaint rates in a survey reported last year and in 2013. DPI Energy was among those with the highest complaint rates in surveys in 2014, 2013 and 2012.
  • According to recent weighted complaint rankings from the PUC (as of March 1, 2015 through August 31, 2015) retail electric providers with the best complaint rankings were MP2 Energy Texas, Alliance Power (APC Electric), MidAmerica Energy, Iluminar Energy (Conservice Energy), Nueces Electric Coop (NEC Retail), Andeler, Hudson Energy Services, Our Energy, TXU Energy, WTU Energy and Reliant Energy.
  • Alliance Power and MP2 Energy Texas also were among those with the best complaint rankings in a survey last year.

How to Lodge a Complaint with the PUC

Under the PUC’s complaint process, customers can file a complaint against a company with the agency’s Office of Customer Protection. Agency employees then make an inquiry with the company, which has 21 days to respond. A PUC investigator evaluates the company’s response to determine whether it failed to follow the law.

The Office of Customer Protection can be reached by calling 1-888-782-8477, by email at customer@puc.state.tx.us, or online at puc.state.tx.us/consumer/complaint/Complaint.aspx.

Texans can also review specific complaint data for competitive electric providers at powertochoose.org. TCAP recommends that consumers always check this complaint data when shopping for electricity.

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