After four straight years of declines, the number of electric consumer complaints filed with Texas regulators ticked upward during the 2014 fiscal year, according to a review of Public Utility Commission data.
The analysis shows increases in various categories of complaints, including significant increases in billing and meter-related complaints. All told, the number of complaints increased by more than 6.7 percent since the previous fiscal year.
However, fiscal 2014 also marked the year with the second fewest complaints since the implementation of retail electric deregulation more than a decade ago. The 7,608 complaints or inquiries registered in FY 2014 also numbered less than half the 15,956 complaints tallied during a peak in 2009.
The Texas Coalition for Affordable Power reviews on an annual basis electricity complaints and inquiries filed with the PUC. The data is culled from consumer complaints reported to the agency’s Office of Customer Protection, which was established in July 1997.
All data are given for fiscal years, and has 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.
On balance, the news is mixed.
Complaints were up from last year in various important categories — including an 11 percent increase in billing related complaints, a nearly 19 percent increase in meter related complaints, and a 9.5 percent increase in complaints related to provision of service.
Significantly, the PUC also registered a 7.5 percent increase in the number of complaints relating to switch-holds. Under the PUC’s controversial switch-hold rule, consumers — under certain circumstances — can be barred from purchasing electricity from any provider if they have a past due balance to a single provider.
However, the new data also reveal a drop from the previous fiscal year in several categories of complaints, including those relating to slamming, cramming and quality of service. Slamming occurs when a customer feels he or she has been switched to a new provider without authorization; cramming occurs when a customer feels that an unauthorized charge has been inserted into his or her bill.
Of the more than 7,000 electricity-related complaints or inquiries filed with the PUC in FY 2014, 820 related to meters or advanced meter systems, 3,178 related to billing, 64 related to cramming, 1,034 related to discontinuance of service, 102 related to the LITE-UP low income assistance program, 1,282 related to provision of service, 347 related to quality of service, 601 related to slamming, 37 related to sub-metering and 143 related to switch-holds.
The number of electricity-related complaints or inquiries filed with the PUC in FY 2014 was nearly 30 percent lower than the annual average of 10,842 recorded by the PUC since the beginning of retail electric deregulation in 2002. However, the FY 2014 number also was more than five times higher than the annual average of 1,315 complaints recorded by the PUC prior to deregulation.
Complaints quadrupled with the transition to deregulation and have never returned to pre-deregulation levels, the analysis shows. Population growth and the increased use of the Internet to facilitate the complaint process can explain some of the overall increase during the deregulation years — but probably not all of it.
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 also includes complaints or inquiries relating to the LITE-UP low-income assistance program, although LITE-UP inquiries are not included in the PUC’s complaint report filed with the Texas Legislature. This analysis does not tabulate complaints filed directly with electric companies.
Texans can find complaint data for individual companies 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.
Under powertochoose website modifications advocated by TCAP, those weighted complaint rankings are now included in search query results.
- The PUC recorded 7,608 electricity related complaints or inquiries during the 2014 fiscal year. That’s the second lowest number tallied by the agency since deregulation began in 2002.
- Texans who filed complaints with the PUC received $421,862 in refunds during the 2014 fiscal year. That’s about 23 percent less than the approximately $550,000 in refunds awarded during the previous fiscal year.
- The plurality of complaints submitted to the PUC over the last two fiscal years relate to electric bills. In FY 2013, 40 percent of complaints related to billing, while the next largest category of complaints — provision of service — amounted to 16 percent. In FY 2014, 42 percent related to billing and 17 percent related to provision of service.
- The practice by some companies of ordering holds on customer accounts generated 143 complaints in FY 2014 — a 7.5 increase from FY 2013. 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 the most recent weighted complaint rankings from the PUC (as of March 1, 2014 through August 31, 2014), retail electric providers with the worst complaint rankings include TruSmart Energy (formerly DPI Energy), Hino Electric, Potentia Energy and Acacia Energy. Acacia Energy also was among those with the highest complaint rates in a survey reported last year. DPI Energy was among those with the highest complaint rates in surveys both in 2013 and 2012.
- Among those retail electric providers with the best complaint rankings are Alliance Power, Glacial, MP2 Energy Texas and Veteran Energy, according to the same data. Glacial also was among those with the lowest complaint rates 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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or online at http://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.