One of the few bright spots for electric consumers during the 2009 Legislative session was passage of House Bill 1822, by state Rep. Burt Solomons. The legislation calls for the establishment of common terms on utility bills and also includes an important requirement that retail electric providers always print on bills the end date of multi-month contracts. This second requirement (it was part of an amendment by state Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth) was meant to reduce consumer headaches when it comes to the length of term contracts and the assessment of early termination penalties.

The Public Utility Commission is now considering how best to implement HB 1822 and has taken up recommendations from several parties. Some retail electric providers have expressed discomfort with the specific end-date provision of HB 1822, arguing instead for permission to print a more general description of the termination date. Consumer groups have argued that this would contradict the clear, black-letter language of HB 1822. PUC staff members also have argued against this REP recommendation.

A second important point of discussion involves penalties for early termination of contracts. PUC staff has argued (and consumer groups agree) that once customers receive notification that their fixed-rate contracts are about to expire, that those customers should not also be dinged with early termination penalties if they switch providers. This would address an inconsistentcy in timing requirements in PUC rules. That is, under current rules, REPs must send out notices of contract expiration 30-60 days in advance, but can still charge early termination penalties up until 14 days before the end of a contract.

That means that under current rules, REPs can punish fixed-rate customers who, upon receiving notice that their contract is about to expire, immediately sign up with a competitor. Conversely REPs can waive early termination penalties for those customers who, upon receiving notification that their contract is about expire, agree instead to lock in another long-term deal with the original REP.

Either way, this increases customer “stickiness” in the Texas electricity market. Consumer groups believe this disconnect between the timing of contract expiration notices and the timing of penalties reduces the ability of customers to exercise their power to choose, thereby lessening the downward pressure on prices that can come from competitive forces.

The PUC is expected to take up rules for HB 1822 during a meeting on Friday.

— R.A. Dyer