Excellent DMN Article Highlights Confusion in Texas Electricity Shopping

In a recent article in the Dallas Morning News, Mitchell Schnurman does an outstanding job of highlighting several of the existing challenges with navigating the Texas electricity market. As someone who has operated a website for electricity in Texas for five years that prioritizes consumer advocacy, I’ve long been beating the drum that the best way to maximize customer savings is through customer education. Unfortunately, it is shocking just how many people really don’t understand how our electricity market works. This is an article that really helps drive home that necessity.

The Texas electricity market can be confusing, and things like minimum usage fees or the differences between fixed and variable plans can be easily overlooked or ignored by customers shopping for different plans available in the market. That is until their bills hit their mailboxes. Schnurman is correct, many of the fees that customers will be tagged with are hidden in paragraphs of legalese and contract fine print and can be difficult to identify if someone isn’t well informed on exactly what to look for when comparing electricity plans.

For example, I work in this space. I know that when I’m shopping for an electricity plan, I need to look first at the plan’s kWh rate, as well as the length of the contract term (I don’t shop for variable plans). Then I need to check the contract cancellation penalty (just in case I decide to leave). Next on the list is the minimum usage charge, both how much that charge is and the electricity thresholds where that charge activates. Next I check the EFLs (electricity facts labels) to see if the electricity company has any other listed items for which they can charge, as well as the plan’s Terms of Service. After that, I check out company reviews from previous customers and see if anything stands out, such as poor customer service or a company with lots of complaints for not mailing out bills consistently…anything that might be a red flag. Finally, I would see if there are any benefits, such as sign-up bonuses or rewards programs that might sweeten the deal.

That’s a lot of steps for shopping for an electricity plan, and I’m certain that a majority of folks shopping for electricity do not go through as rigorous a research protocol as myself. But they should. It’s just like buying a car, the customers that come in the most informed have a better chance of walking away with a much better deal on an automobile. Which is what makes some of the comments by Kenneth Anderson frustrating in the DMN article.

We’re almost 15 years into deregulation in Texas, and many people still don’t know the difference between the TDPS (companies who are responsible for maintaining the poles and power lines) and REPs (the electricity companies who bill you each month). And while the PUC has a point in talking about not wanting to do anything (such as an apples to apples plan to allow easier electricity comparison) to deter the competition of the market, there are certainly things they can be doing to increasing the knowledge base of Texas shoppers. For example, they could change the rules for how plans are presented, highlighting and forcing companies to put the information that most directly impacts a monthly bill front and center when trying to sell their plans, instead of burying it pages into an EFL or the Terms of Service, specifically Minimum Usage charges and thresholds. Many electricity companies in the past have billed customers based on the historical usage of their addresses, as opposed to their actual usage. Having that information front and center for customers to look up to understand an address’s past usage and how it relates to computing a minimum usage charge would be helpful as well.

The point is, that there are a number of ways to make this process easier to understand for customers and better equip them for taking advantage of everything the Texas electricity market offers. And this can all be done without endangering the competition that makes this market greater. In fact, in my opinion, it is the deep pockets of electricity companies and their substantial lobbying budgets that prevent many changes, not the fear of curbing competition between providers. But regardless of the cause, the best solution is for Texas consumers to educate themselves and find the best deals.

Critical Peak Rebate Programs. What Are They?

Critical Peak Rebate programs are likely to become a new hot trend in the world of Texas electricity.  So what are critical peak rebate programs, and what do they mean to you? Lets take a look. Continue reading “Critical Peak Rebate Programs. What Are They?” »

Reliant’s New Unlimited Electricity Plan: A Closer Look

Recently Reliant Energy announced a new electricity plan for Texans, the Reliant Predictable 12 Plan. As the Houston Chronicle outlined, the plan calls for customers to sign a one-year electricity contract at a flat, monthly rate, regardless of electricity usage. This kind of plan is normal in other industries, specifically cell phone service providers, but it is the first of its kind in the Texas electricity space. I’m no stranger to questioning some of Reliant’s past electricity plans, so I figured it was worth the time to take a closer look at this new “unlimited plan.”

The Plan

On the surface, the plan is pretty straightforward. Customers will pay a flat fee to Reliant every month to receive unlimited electricity service. So whether they use five or five thousand kWh in a month, their bill will be the same. The appeal (or the demographic Reliant claims to be appealing to) might be older folks on a fixed income, or perhaps younger college graduates who have to make very careful budgeting plans each month. Customers visit Reliant’s website, input their address, and select the Reliant Predictable 12 Plan. They will be then be given a monthly estimate, presumably based upon the historical usage of the building in question, and possibly some other factors. Easy enough, right?

The Results

I’ll caveat this portion by saying two things: 1) The price given by Reliant when I input my address is very likely just an estimate of my monthly rate 2.) It’s impossible for me to know what anyone else’s estimates would be without putting in their addresses. That being said, what I can certainly do is analyze that plan with my own address. I live in a two-thousand square foot town-home, fairly new construction, and with a 2 year old A/C unit that is on the lower end of energy efficiency. Here were my results:

Your Predictable 12 amount is $150.00 per month.

Average Monthly Use 5000 kWh 4000 kWh 3000 kWh 2000 kWh 1000 kWh 500 kWh
Average Price Per kWh 0.03 0.04 0.05 0.08 0.15 0.30

Now, lets explain what that means. The math is simple, just multiply the kWh by the Average price to get your monthly average. The first thing that should jump off the page is that the 1000 kWh plan is LITERALLY the exact same price per month as the 500 kWh user. Use 500 or 1000 kWh? Who cares, pay Reliant $150. In fact, if you stretch the math onward, you’ll see that 4 of the 6 possible rates per usage come out to…exactly $150. The other two come out at $160. So basically, Reliant is going to make sure they are making $150 a month on these customers, whether they’re living in a 1 bedroom studio the size of a broom closet or a 5,000 acre compound with a private zoo.

I suppose this should immediately disabuse anyone of the notion that this kind of plan makes sense for a budget conscious retiree or recent college graduate. The .3 rate they quote for someone using 500 kWh is more than three times the cheapest plan available on Power To Choose, and double the most expensive fixed rate plan in the 500 kWh range. In fact, it’s more than twice as expensive as all but one of the five Reliant plans listed on Power To Choose. Personally, I don’t think it’s very budget friendly to charge double or triple rates just so you know exactly what your monthly bill will be, but that’s just me.

And it gets worse. Again, I can only compare this bill to my own historic electricity usage but I pulled my bills to make a comparison. Thanks to Reliant’s easy math, my yearly bill on their plan would be $1800. But looking at my past 12 bills, I can immediately tell this is a bad proposition. Over the past 12 months, I had exactly one bill that was higher than $150. My bill for last July clocked in at $157. So one bill, in the hottest month of the year, topped the $150 Reliant would look to charge me every month. Of course, I also had 7 bills less than $100, including 5 bills under $60. The total cost of my last 12 months of electricity was $1148.45. That’s $651.55, or 36% less expensive than Reliant’s Predictable 12 Plan. That seems like a pretty expensive premium to pay just to know exactly what your electricity bill will be each month. Anyone who can afford that probably isn’t worried about budgeting their monthly bills in the first place because they are affluent, and the irony is they can still get a better deal simply by doing nothing.

 

Other Considerations

The price tag alone isn’t the only thing to consider. As we’ve demonstrated above, despite being tagged as a “budget friendly” plan, this isn’t a plan that makes sense for anyone who is financially concerned about their budget. On the lower end of the spectrum, the plan is extremely expensive.

There are also a couple energy efficiency points. First off, it appears that Reliant is estimating the monthly rate at least in part on past usage. But what happens if someone were to spend money outfitting their home with new energy efficiency appliances? Any possible energy savings or improvements would be lost on their bill simply because the plan doesn’t take into account actual usage. And in this day and age we’re making improvements on the energy efficiency of home appliances and electronics by leaps and bounds. But none of that would matter to any customer on this electricity plan.

Another energy efficiency point to consider is responsible conservation. This plan doesn’t exactly encourage customers to be on their best behavior. It doesn’t really matter if they would leave their electricity on all hours or run their A/C at 65 degrees in the middle of August…because no matter what the bill is going to be the same. So in that regard if someone is looking to raise a dozen penguins in their home year round, well, this is the electricity choice for you! That’s hardly a positive considering the state of Texas is facing an uphill battle to build new electricity generation plants even as our population continues to boom. Of course, Reliant likely doesn’t care about that since their parent company, NRG, currently owns a huge percentage of Texas’s electricity generation and can only make more money from any electricity shortages.

Conclusions

I think it’s safe to say that Reliant Energy’s Predictable 12 Plan probably isn’t the best option for anyone even remotely concerned with their monthly electricity bills. For all but the largest users of electricity, the rates are extremely high. Anyone who can afford $1800 a year on electricity service probably doesn’t have to concern themselves much with their monthly utilities budget. However, for a small niche of customers wealthy enough to want to build snowmen in their living room year round this plan might make good sense. But an average customer like myself can save more than $600 a year just by paying for the electricity I actually use.

PUC to Vote on Important “Small Fish” Texas Electricity Exemption Rule

ERCOT is set to vote on an amendment to a rule that is commonly known as the “Small Fish Swim Free” market exemption. As much as that might not sound like a big deal, this vote actually should have huge ramifications for the entire industry of electricity in Texas, from the generators all the way down to the average residential electricity customer. So what is this “Small Fish” rule, and how does it affect day to day market behavior and retail consumers? Let’s take a look.

The Small Fish Rule states, in short, that unless an energy generation company represents at least 5% of the total market generation they are deemed by the Public Utility Commission of Texas to “legally” be seen as not having any “market power.” As a result of this Small Fish exemption and legally being seen as not having “market power,” qualifying generation companies can operate according to a different rules than companies such as NRG or Luminant. Specifically, a “Small Fish” company can choose to do things differently, legally. This in turn can cause a chain reaction in elevating the per-unit cost of electricity to retail electricity companies or other firms purchasing power. If an advantageous situation arises where a Small Fish can affect the outcome of the price of wholesale power, it is possible for them to use their actual (although not legally recognized) market power on a moment’s notice. And unbeknownst to all other market participants, raising their offer curves from cost can bump up prices to the price cap of $5000. You can see how the ability to do either could be very powerful if one company had the ability to change the whole-sale electricity prices thousands of dollars at will, depending on the circumstances.

The existing law is dependent on the concept that someone with less than 5% of the total installed capacity indeed has no market power. In other words, nothing they do can affect the whole electricity market in total, particularly in resource adequacy or pricing. Of course, on the face of it, this is a somewhat absurd comment. In today’s ERCOT, 5% of the energy generation on the market comes out to just over 4,000 megawatts of capacity. That’s a very robust amount of capacity, and significantly more capacity than the difference between Texas being put at risk for rolling blackouts and operating with ample breathing room.

To put things in perspective, lets consider an analogy to a gas station after a hurricane. You can have less than 5% market share of a cities gasoline market and during normal times it’s pretty meaningless.  But then a hurricane comes in and devastates the city and suddenly demand shoots up, and then you offer your gasoline at $10 a gallon because you know people will pay for it.  Most of the time it’s meaningless but then sometimes it’s critical. The point is, the notion that something as “small” as 5% of a market has “no power” is a roundly incorrect one. Often times, the amounts of megawatts between $100 and the price cap of $5000 is often in the hundreds of megawatts so the ability to influence prices whenever a generator feels it’s opportunistic to them is a large advantage in a times where markets are supposed to becoming more fair for everyone. Of course, this is only a problem if it’s actually occurring with any kind of frequency. From an article in Platts:

In a presentation about the NPRR to the committee, Patrick de Man, speaking for Raiden Commodities, said that on 17 days from June through early September, such a “small fish” had raised the price on a substantial part of its fleet capacity near the systemwide offer cap, which has been $5,000/MWh since June 1. De Man did not name the “small fish” in question either in his presentation or in his discussion, out of concern that it might be considered in violation of federal antitrust laws. A Platts analysis showed that on nine of the days cited in de Man’s presentation, GDF Suez, which has about 3,957 MW of capacity spread across ERCOT’s Houston, North and South hubs, priced between 564 and 1,332 MW of electricity between $4,900 and $5,000/MWh. De Man said that locational marginal price spikes correlated strongly with the times that the “small fish” in his presentation raised prices on substantial portions of its capacity near the systemwide offer cap. “How can it be a competitive and efficient market if there’s one party who is pushing prices around like this?” de Man asked.

In other words, during the hottest times of the year, one electricity generator listed as a “small fish” was consistently raising their prices near the maximum offering cap allowed, in turn effecting the pricing for everyone when they deemed it was advantageous for them. When speaking with several people who work in trading, they readily admit off the record that this kind of thing happens, that it makes their job nearly impossible to value the price of electricity, and that its most certainly market abuse. Markets need to be fair to create competition and attract capital deployment. When they are in fact not fair, then that said market breaks down. This is what is occurring right now in Texas. In fact, the former Independent Market Monitor, Dan Jones, agrees with the statement about abuse. From the same Platt’s article:

Dan Jones, who heads Potomac Economics’ independent market monitor operation at ERCOT, said his staff would consider the type of activity described in de Man’s presentation “economic withholding.” “But per [PUC] rules, it’s not market power abuse, because you have to be an entity that has market power, and by the rule, entities that don’t have 5% [of total capacity] do not have marketwide market power,” Jones said.   Jones noted that his State of the Market Report for 2012, issued in June, mentioned that a “large ‘small fish’” could be “pivotal.”

So let’s recap: The traders think it’s market abuse, and the former man in charge of making sure there are no abuses believes it would be abuse if it was performed by anyone with 5% of the market. He also went on record saying that a “small fish” could absolutely be, in his own words, “pivotal.”  

So what is left to debate here, exactly? And none of this above even touches on another strategy that can be used in this situation, physical with-holding. Physical with-holding is a strategy Enron used in California to increase prices by making available units unavailable creating shortages in capacity thus driving up prices, and some traders I have talked with have actually filed complaints with the IMM and the PUCT only to be told that any behavior out of one entity in question is not up for discussion as they have immunity. But we’ll look closer at physical with-holding in another article.

There is plenty more we can examine about this situation. For starters, if this is a punishable offense (regardless of the “small fish” rule or not) then why aren’t any guilty parties being punished? By implementing this amendment, it removes the possibility of any of these energy generators from effecting prices in the way they have in the past. It makes the point moot. And besides, why shouldn’t smaller generators have to play by the same rules as the larger generators? What positive purpose does the exception serve anyway? All in all, it just makes sense to create a level playing for all parties, and thus create even more transparency in the Texas electricity marketplace to make sure everything is operating above board.

Donna Nelson On Residential Customer Demand Response

I’ve been fairly critical of the PUC in recent posts, but recently Donna Nelson did speak out on something that I do actually agree with…or at the very least, it seems fair. As the generation capacity of Texas continues to shrink, and as the PUC’s efforts to lure new generation to date have failed,  Continue reading “Donna Nelson On Residential Customer Demand Response” »

Texas Electricity Ratings: Rankings Update 2/19/13

We’re well into the new year, and it is time for a new update of our rankings here at Texas Electricity Ratings. We’ve had rate changes now that companies are preparing to move back into summer rates, and there’s also been another round of customer reviews that I’ve entered into my system. So with that in mind, here’s our latest round of rankings:

Bounce Energy                        4.04
Champion Energy Services     3.91
StarTex Power                         3.81
TriEagle Energy                       3.69
Gexa Energy                            3.58
Direct Energy                           3.17
Amigo Energy                          3.09
Tara Energy                             3.02
Green Mountain Energy           2.79
TXU Energy                              2.53
Texas Power                            2.46
Reliant Energy                          2.13

Congratulations to Bounce Energy, who is back in the top spot! Bounce is followed by Champion Energy, who slipped a little but during this rankings system. StarTex Power has slipped back into the 3rd spot, even after their purchase by Constellation Energy. That speaks well to how they’ve been transitioned into Constellation.

During my rankings update, I’ve also noticed some more things about the Power To Choose website rankings, but that will be another post I’ll put up later today or tomorrow.

PUC Rules Electric Companies Can’t Alter Fixed Price Rates

After the PUC voted to raise the market cape earlier this summer (with more cap raises coming in upcoming years), there were a lot of concerns about whether or not Texas electricity companies would alter the rates of their fixed rate electricity plans because of increased costs on their end. This was a controversial concept, since they would essentially be breaking their contracts with their customers. The only REP that actually Continue reading “PUC Rules Electric Companies Can’t Alter Fixed Price Rates” »

Potential TXU Bankruptcy: What it Means for Texas Electricity Customers

The Texas electricity market has been abuzz the past few weeks after a series of articles have been released speculating about the possibilities of Energy Future Holdings separating their competitive assets (TXU and Luminent, respectively) from Oncor in preparation of possible bankruptcy. There have been several articles in the Dallas Morning News, which you can read here, here, here and here, as well as an article here in Bloomberg. Right now everything being written is just speculation,  Continue reading “Potential TXU Bankruptcy: What it Means for Texas Electricity Customers” »

Texas Electricity Ratings: Rankings Update: 10/16/2012

Summer has passed and we’ve had several events that have influenced some of the ways we rank providers at Texas Electricity Ratings, including rate changes as well as the releasing of the latest JD Power & Associates survey of Texas electricity providers, among others. And surprisingly enough, Continue reading “Texas Electricity Ratings: Rankings Update: 10/16/2012” »