Method of Choosing Electricity Plan in Texas Faulted

Critics question minimum usage charges, other extra fees

With a month left of the Texas legislative session, a bill that would eliminate a minimum usage fee on many electric plans appears stalled as critics complain the state’s system of choosing an electricity provider has grown too confusing.

An aide to state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said Thursday the bill remains in the State Affairs Committee but acknowledged it faces a challenging future.

The proposal is aimed at making it easier to compare rate plans by getting rid of minimum usage fees, which require customers to pay an extra fee if they use less than a certain amount of electricity per month.

The bill is supported by ratepayer groups who argue customers are overwhelmed by so many choices.

"When the market first opened, the pricing plans were fairly regular and then over time, reps started adding different types of fees into their plans," said Carol Biedrzycki, executive director of Texas Ratepayers’ Organization to Save Energy, or Texas ROSE. "It's an impossible amount of information for the average person to comb through."

But electric companies are fighting against the idea.

"We oppose legislation that says you can't offer something or you have to offer something,” said John Fainter of the Association of Electric Companies of Texas. “We think the market is a better place to determine that."

Since Texas deregulated the industry in 2002, most Texans have had a choice of electricity providers, which advertise their rates on the website powertochoose.org.

But critics say it is difficult for customers to compare rate plans because there are so many confusing options.

To find out how easy, NBC 5 asked advanced math students who are members of the emerging scholars program at the University of Texas at Arlington to crunch the numbers for just the top five plans.

The students have all studied calculus, but they found picking the cheapest plan was difficult.

"I don't know if there is a way to pick a definite answer,” said UTA student Richard Chandler.

Finding the cheapest plan depends on so many variables which are difficult to figure into the equation, he said.

"The average person is going to get four pieces of information and go, 'This is too much,’” Chandler said. “It is not as easy as I thought at all."

Another student, Zachery Engel, agreed.

"You really have to look at all the little fees because that straight kilowatt per hour price you're getting is not what you're paying,” Engel said. “You have to calculate everything else in."

Experts suggest studying the plans carefully.

Most electric companies will provide a billing history for customers so that they know how much electricity they use – an important factor in rating each plan.

Not all plans include minimum usage fees but most typically cost more.

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