PUC Complaint Summary & Scorecard Need Some Work

The PUC Scorecard and Complaint Summaries have been a part of how Texas Electricity Ratings evaluates the different retail electric providers in Texas since we first began the site back in 2009. After all, the Public Utilities Commission’s own view of different electricity companies was a logical voice to include when trying to create a fully encompassing view of the Texas electricity market. Unfortunately, over the years, I’ve noticed a number of inconsistencies and inexplicable omissions that have forced me to ask what, exactly, the PUC is doing in regards to the PUC Complaint Statistics and Provider Scorecards on their website?

What’s Wrong With the PUC’s Published Information?

For starters, lets take a look at the Complaint Summary. There’s a lot of information to take in here, but we’ll start off very easily. The oddest thing I see when I look at this page is the number of redundant REP’s listed here. For example, Direct Energy is listed…but so is First Choice Power, CPL, and WTU. Why aren’t all of these companies rolled up under Direct Energy? First Choice Power has quite a few PUC complaints, that could make a big difference in how Direct Energy is viewed by the public. The same thing goes for Fulcrum Energy (Amigo), and Tara Energy. They’re the same company, and yet they’re listed separately. Not only that, but they’re both owned by another company, Just Energy, who is also listed separately.  I’m certain the PUC would attempt to point out that when they were purchased they retained their separate REP Licenses, which allows them to operate “independently.” That being said, Direct Energy paid more than 200 million dollars for First Choice Power…shouldn’t they actually be held accountable for the amount of complaints the company they purchased receives from the consumer, as well as get credit if they improve service and bring down complaints? Here’s more strangeness listed on this page: Constellation Energy purchased StarTex Power last year, yet they’re both listed separately along with a 2nd Constellation Company, Constellation NewEnergy. NRG owns Reliant, Green Mountain Energy, and Pennywise Power, along with Energy Plus…shouldn’t they at least be listed under an NRG sub-heading that shows that relationship? Ditto what I said above for Direct Energy and their different brands. Epcot Electric went out of business this summer as they were purchased by YEP/Texpo/Southwest Power & Light, yet they’re still listed on that Customer Complaint Statistics page. Why is that, when their complaints as well as their customers should have been absorbed by Texpo? What exactly is the PUC trying to accomplish here? As an authority that should be attempting to act as a voice of the marketplace and mitigating confusion of customers, the Complaint Statistics page seems to be adding confusion to the marketplace for shoppers. The high-minded idea behind the project remains present, but the PUC is leaving an incomplete image out there for the public to consume as a valuable, authoritative opinion on the market. But how can it  be valuable if the picture isn’t all-encompassing and many of the separate providers listed are redundant?

Residential Retail Electric Provider Complaint Scorecard:

The other major piece of published information is the Residential Retail Electric Provider Complaint Scorecard, or what we’ll just call the PUC Complaint Scorecard. This is the August PUC Complaint Scorecard. This is how every single PUC complaint scorecard has looked for years, until I started asking questions and then this scorecard appeared for September (Note that the September Scorecard wasn’t released until November). Notice a difference? Me too, but we’ll address that below.

The Complaint Scorecards are a series of rolling 6 month averages of PUC complaints against an REP, divided by the amount of customers that a provider serves. One immediate problem here is that the number of customers served by REPs is very difficult information to come by, so there’s absolutely no transparency here on the part of the PUC, which is ostensibly supposed to be a transparent governmental office serving the general public. That’s a pretty big deal, both in customers understanding what exactly they’re looking at, as well as the fact that the amount of customers that an REP services might be very important information for a customer deciding who they might want to use for electricity service.

I don’t think anyone is looking for specific customer counts, mind you, as that seems proprietary. But if the commission is going to rate companies in part based on their size, shouldn’t a range of sizes for each entity be provided to the customer as well?

One important note, as I began researching this article and speaking with the PUC, the other major issue I had with the complaint scorecard was that many larger, active REP’s weren’t being listed. Primary examples were Pennywise Power, Entrust Energy, TriEagle Energy and Infinite Energy. These were companies that had been in business in Texas for years, and in the case of Pennywise Power is a subsidiary of NRG, one of the biggest energy companies on the planet. Yet for years they weren’t represented on the PUC Commplaint scorecard. Of course, between the time I started writing this article and asking these questions to the PUC, the complaint scorecard has been updated and a whole slew of new REPs have been added, including Pennwise Power (who is listed as US Retailers). All in all, 23 new electricity providers were added to the Complaint Scorecard since I started asking questions.

Of course, the fact that some new providers have been added to the scorecard doesn’t fix all of its problems and inconsistencies. For starters, we’re still seeing the same issues of  redundant companies. WTU, CPL, Direct Energy, and First Choice Power are all listed separately. Ditto all the NRG companies. As we’ve already covered, this makes it extremely confusing and difficult for customers to understand what the marketplace truly looks like. And to further complicate things, some companies on the complaint scorecard operate as a DBA (Doing Business As) with a completely different name than is listed on their PUC certificate, which is what is listed on the PUC Complaint Scorecard. Again, the perfect example is Pennywise Power. Pennywise Power is the primary name that US Retailers conducts business as in the state of Texas (well, other than Reliant and NRG). That’s the URL of their website. But on the complaint scorecard, they’re listed as US Retailers. That makes it close to impossible for any average person looking to use this scorecard as a research tool and reference sheet for electricity to look and understand that Pennywise Power is actually rated as US Retailers. Someone would have to do some serious research just to learn that fact, and why would someone even know they’d have to do that kind of research in the first place? So while it’s good that the PUC recently added US Retailers to their complaint scorecard, the manner in which the scorecard is organized makes its addition next to useless.

To be fair, however, the Customer Complaint Statistics page does list the DBA’s beneath the company’s operating name. At least there, someone can do a CTL+F and find Pennywise Power that way.

Suggested Improvements

So much is inconsistent and questionable with the information the PUC releases about REPs each month that it’s concerning to think that this is a resource intended to act in the consumer’s best interest. However, fixing things actually might not be too difficult. The first step would be to continue to update their pages regularly with the correct information about who is in the marketplace, both adding new companies and removing old companies that have exited the market or been purchased. The fact that they updated the companies recently is a great start, but before that I’m not sure I’d seen any changes to that page in years. Hopefully the PUC keeps up with things going forward.

Next, repair all the misaligned companies and roll the complaints up under one company. When I asked the PUC why companies were listed out under their different names without any ties to their parent companies, they responded as I predicted: Because these companies all have individual licenses with the PUC, then they’re allowed to be listed out separately. Which makes sense, just not from the perspective of the consumer. If one company buys another, they should be responsible for those complaints.

The purpose of these reports is allow consumers to see how these companies perform in the marketplace in regards to their customers. Leaving them segmented and fractured when they’re the same companies is doing a disservice to the people in the deregulated areas of Texas who would use the PUC as a resource. At the very least the companies should be listed out with ties to their parent companies. Imagine the notion of customers who are fed up with one provider, utilize PowerToChoose to find another provider, fail to see issues with the provider on the scorecard due to lack of updating, and then sign up with the new provider who they then discover is the exact same old provider they left, only under a different name? Wait, don’t imagine it, I received this complaint from a reviewer a few months ago which led me to think further about this whole state-sponsored initiative and write this article.

The next logical step would be transparency. Consumers should be able to see a general idea of how many customers a specific REP has in the state of Texas, or at the very least a ballpark range. Like it or not, some customers place value on how many other customers an REP services when making a buying decision. An additional benefit to releasing this info is that consumers can do their own math in regards to Customers/Complaints to create a true transparency for the PUC’s evaluations. Right now I can just look at Texpo having 100 more complaints than DPI energy and think that one is either really small, the other is really big, or both. But that’s just an assumption, and having all the information in a black box at the PUC (when the REPs deign to share it with them), doesn’t give these numbers much credibility when no one has to show their work. My guess is that Texpo is not anywhere close to 20 times larger than DPI, but the current rankings would have us think otherwise.

Final Thoughts

The most important thing to note here is that the PUC has started making changes to the complaint scorecard. The fact that it never should have gotten to this point in the first place is secondary to the fact that they’re trying to remedy the situation now. Additionally, they seem like they’re willing to listen to outside thoughts on how to improve their complaint pages and make sure they’re a viable resource for customers looking to shop for new electricity plans in Texas.

Of course, until some more changes are implemented, the PUC Complaint pages shouldn’t be used as a fail-safe or catch-all panacea for consumers to utilize while shopping. For the time being shoppers and consumer advocacy groups should be looking and pointing to the PUC complaint pages as part of the shopping process, but keep in mind that it isn’t a clear representative of the entire Texas electricity market.

 

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