Consumers need help with complex energy market
HB 345 seeks to make sure the rules are fair, transparent and equal to all who participate
The electric marketplace is a tough place to survive; customers in New Hampshire have witnessed that firsthand in the last two winters. It has been a confusing and uncertain time for tens of thousands of us facing higher and higher rates.
The regional electric grid operator, ISO New England, has bounced a number of competitive electricity suppliers out of the marketplace based on financial defaults. Many of us have found, once these providers get shut down, we are automatically shifted to a regulated electric utility. Customers are most often unaware of any of these transactions. We are passed around like balloons at a children’s birthday party.
Meanwhile, other customers whose suppliers did not default were hit with significantly higher fixed-rate electric costs or put onto a “variable” market rate by their competitive supplier, per the fine print in their contracts.
Customers thought they were signing on to a new power supplier who could save them serious bucks on electricity. What they got was a lesson in how complex our so-called “competitive energy market” has become in our state.
Competition is a good thing and lowering electric rates is a priority. But if customers have no idea how to participate in the market, and are unaware of their rights and responsibilities, then we have a broken system.
We have introduced House Bill 345, which attempts to correct that problem by essentially creating a consumer bill of rights. The goal is to make sure the rules of our state’s competitive energy market are fair, transparent and equal to all who participate.
Deregulation of our electricity market has allowed companies to get involved in the market to buy power from utilities and sell it to customers on the open market.
Unfortunately, the rules offer little oversight to the operations of these companies, and as we saw last year, it can result in sudden changes and lots of confusion.
HB 345 is designed to provide some basic rules and clarity to make sure people don’t need a degree in electrical engineering to figure out their electricity contract.
Some of the rules:
• Delete the time restriction on the Public Utilities Commission’s ability to mediate disputes between customers and competitive suppliers. We need speedy involvement by regulators to step in when there is a problem. Delays are costly.
• Remove any ability to terminate service as a result of not paying a competitive supplier’s bill. Disputes can be resolved without cutting the lights and heat to peoples’ homes.
• Electric customers deserve to know the financial integrity and stability of a competitive supplier. There cannot be any question about the capabilities of a company offering services in this market. We have no room for carnival games.
• Competitive suppliers should be subject to the prohibition on “unfair and deceptive acts” in existing state law. Just because this is a deregulated market should not mean New Hampshire treats this market like the wild West.
There are other components of this consumer protection law. We must ensure people understand the fine print of any power contract they sign. There must be clear deadlines and rate structures must be simple and unambiguous. The rules for getting out of the contract also need to be transparent. Simple and user-friendly is the goal of our proposal.
This proposal won’t address every challenge. This is a complicated issue and a tough market. The bottom line is we need to start somewhere, and we need to protect the interests of every electricity customer in our state.
Rep. Katherine Rogers, a Democrat, lives in Concord. Rep Al Baldasaro, a Republican, lives in Londonderry. Rep. Robert (Renny) Cushing, a Democrat, lives in Hampton.