PowertochooseHow’s this for irritating? You shut down your air conditioning and appliances to save money, but then get dinged with an extra fee for conserving power.

Welcome to the annoying world of minimum-use fees. These particularly pernicious charges have become increasingly common in the state’s deregulated retail electric market despite objections from consumers, advocacy groups and lawmakers.

Although recent legislation to ban these fees failed at the Texas Legislature, the state Public Utility Commission now says it’s taking action to give consumers fair warning about them.

According to an agency spokesman, the state-sponsored electricity shopping website, powertochoose.org, will soon include a filter to allow consumers to identify these fees prior to selecting an electricity deal. The agency is still working out the details.

“If we can find a way to lessen confusion, we’ll do that,” PUC spokesman Terry Hadley told a reporter for the Houston Chronicle. Hadley also told the newspaper that some companies “probably” intentionally mislead shoppers.

According to the newspaper account, the PUC will add the filter in the next three or four months. The powertochoose.org website already includes other filters, including those that allow consumers to eliminate variable-rate deals and pre-paid deals when comparing offers.

A recent Houston Chronicle investigation found that of the more than 300 electricity deals examined by the newspaper, more than 70 percent included minimum-usage charges. The average was $10.67 per month for customers using less than 1,000 kWh for month, according to the investigation.

The Texas Coalition for Affordable Power has supported legislation to address the proliferation of these charges in the state’s deregulated retail electric market.  That legislation, House Bill 2254 by state Rep. Sylvester Turner, failed under heavy lobby pressure from retail electric providers.

— R.A. Dyer

What is the Texas Coalition for Affordable Power?

TCAP is a coalition of more than 160 cities and other political subdivisions that purchase electricity in the deregulated market for their own governmental use. Because high energy costs can impact municipal budgets and the ability to fund essential services, TCAP, as part of its mission, actively promotes affordable energy policies. High energy prices also place a burden on local businesses and home consumers.