Electricity complaints over billing, service and meters were the most common during the 2011 fiscal year.

Here’s another good news, bad news story for the Texas electricity market.

First, the good: Complaints against electric companies, as recorded by the Texas Public Utility Commission, are down from last year.

Now the bad: electricity complaints still remain more than 300 percent higher than pre-deregulation levels.

According to data obtained under the state’s open records law, Texans filed 9,529 electricity-related complaints with Public Utility Commission in the 2011 fiscal year. That’s down by about 27 percent from the 2010 fiscal year, when Texans filed 13,078 electricity-related complaints with the agency.  The drop also brings the number of electricity complaints to the lowest level in Texas since 2005, when 7,791 complaints were filed with the PUC.

The fortuitous drop probably relates to the easing of electricity prices in recent years, which in turn is related to lower commodity natural gas prices. (Natural gas is used to fuel many power plants in Texas.) The drop may also indicate that Texans have become more familiar with the deregulated market, which is good news, and may show that Texans have somewhat recovered from the shock of unpopular advanced meters installed throughout the state.

But the new figures also show that policymakers and companies must continue working to improve the electricity market for consumers. While complaints may be down in the short-term, they still remain more than three times higher than those filed on an annual basis before deregulation.

By far, billing complaints remain the most common, with 3,429 filed with the PUC in FY 2011. The next most common are provision of service complaints(1,892), followed by meter complaints (1,499).  Also, for the first time ever, Texas consumers began complaining about new switch-hold rules, which are included in a controversial PUC policy that allows the state to block some Texans from obtaining power to air condition their homes and run their refrigerators if they get behind in their electricity bills.

Some industry representatives have attributed the relatively high number of complaints under deregulation not to public dissatisfaction with the law, but to more recent PUC procedures that make it easier to file complaints via email. But in information also obtained under the state’s open records law, the PUC has revealed that the agency was soliciting complaints via email well before the implementation of deregulation.

Customers wishing to file complaints regarding their electric service can do so through the agency’s Office of Customer Protection, which can be reached at 1-888-782-8477, by email at customer@puc.state.tx.us, or online at this link.  The PUC then makes 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.

Texans can also review specific complaint data for competitive electric providers at the powertochoose.com website. The complaint scorecards can be found here.

— R.A. Dyer