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” »

Electricity Complaints Continue to Decline

Recharge Texas, a group that I’ve often disagreed with in the past, released a new report discussing how PUC complaints have declined year over year from their peak in 2010. Of course, TCAP was also quick to point out that  Continue reading “Electricity Complaints Continue to Decline” »

Texas Electricity Customer Satisfaction Tops in JD Power Survey

As I wrote about yesterday, JD Power & Associates released their 2012 survey of Customer Satisfaction for the Texas electricity market. I’ve already written about the specific results and the electricity providers that excelled in the survey. Today I want to take a look at another segment of information that was released in the survey:

Customers in Texas who are able to choose their electric provider are increasingly more satisfied with their provider than are those who do not have a choice, according to the J.D. Power and Associates 2012 Texas Residential Retail Electric Provider Customer Satisfaction StudySM

Since Texas deregulated in 2002, the market has had it’s ups and downs. It took a couple years for the pricing to get in stride, and it also took a few years for most people to come to understand the process of shopping for and selecting new electricity providers, as well as the difference in responsibilities between companies like Reliant and Centerpoint, or TXU and Oncor. Lots of people got frustrated, and lots of people in places like Austin and San Antonio pointed fingers and said deregulated electricity was a failure.

However, in the past 5-6 years, the market has settled down. Prices hit all-time lows with the cost of natural gas, and right now they are actually some of the lowest prices in the country while Austin is on it’s way to having one of the highest electricity rates in the state of Texas. Additionally, some reports from biased groups like Recharge Texas have interpreted that rising customer complaints after deregulation are a sign of overall customer dissatisfaction, as opposed to customers simply participating in the marketplace. Well, this recent JD Power Survey seems to put that to rest once and for all:

Overall satisfaction among residential customers of electric retailers in Texas is 678 (on a 1,000-point scale), an increase of 44 points from 2010. This is the highest level since the study was first published in 2008. Moreover, this is the first time satisfaction among customers with a retail choice of electric providers exceeds both the Texas and U.S. national averages for all factors measured in the study. Among Texas customers with regulated residential electric service, satisfaction is 646. Regionally, satisfaction among customers in the Metropolitan Dallas/Fort Worth area is 677, compared with 681 among those in the Houston area, three points higher than the statewide average.

So Texas has the highest customer satisfaction when compared to any other state in the country, particularly and including regulated states. Additionally, when comparing the customer satisfaction between the regulated and deregulated areas of Texas, the average customer satisfaction is overwhelmingly better in the deregulated areas. Despite a bunch of naysayers about deregulated electricity, and customers paying higher prices, and being dissatisfied with a confusing process, it looks like the market actually is working and customers are happier.

Here’s some other interesting facts and snippets from the JD Power Survey:

“Many electric retailers in Texas are considering how to better serve their customers when they are contacted,” said Andrew Heath, senior director of the energy and utility practice at J.D. Power and Associates. “The large improvements show that electric retailers are putting practices in place that improve satisfaction, which helps retain customers.”

Satisfaction is 218 points higher when customers’ questions or problems are resolved on the first call, compared with when their questions or problems require two or more calls for resolution (799 vs. 581, respectively). Similarly, online customer service interactions echo the need for quick resolution, as satisfaction with customer service is 800 among customers whose questions or problems are resolved on their first visit to the website, compared with 644 when problem resolution requires two or more visits.

“Customers do not want to spend much time getting an answer or fixing a problem with their bill or service,” said Heath. “The dramatic increase in satisfaction for first-contact resolution is a clear indicator that Texas electric companies should strive to quickly resolve issues or questions.”

Among customers who are aware of their retailer electric provider’s corporate citizenship efforts–such as supporting local organizations or volunteering in the community–satisfaction averages more than 60 points higher than among those who are not aware of such efforts.

So it looks like the innovation and focus on customer service that was expected to result from a deregulated market have taken place. Companies are focusing on customers, as well as innovating in the online space. Some companies are even making a larger push at civic involvement and their customers are aware and pleased at this fact. The rates in the deregulated areas of Texas are among the cheapest in the entire nation. It looks like the deregulated electricity in Texas is a success. Or at the very least, the customers buying electricity certainly seem to believe it’s a success.