Texas Coalition for Affordable Power: Electric complaints decline, but still more numerous under electric deregulation

AUSTIN, Texas–(BUSINESS WIRE)– The number of electric industry complaints filed in Texas continued to fall during the 2012 fiscal year, although they remain at least five times higher than the pre-electric deregulation average, according to an analysis of regulatory data by the Texas Coalition for Affordable Power.

Complaints relating to the installation of advanced meters also increased, as well as complaints relating to a controversial policy that blocks some households from switching electric companies. TCAP based its analysis on a review of annual complaint data received by the state’s Public Utility Commission.

The Texas Coalition for Affordable Power is a coalition of cities that promote policies to make electricity more affordable. The complaint analysis was released Monday at tcaptx.com, along with background documentation.

“Complaints are down this year, which suggests Texans are becoming more comfortable with their electric service — but this doesn’t suggest that there’s not more to be done,” said Dr. Randy Moravec, TCAP executive director. “This new analysis shows that contract confusion, billing disputes and other problems remain common. We urge PUC commissioners and state lawmakers to do all they can to ensure that consumers come first in this market.”

The new analysis reviewed all electricity-related complaints submitted to the PUC’s Office of Customer Protection, which was created in July 1997. The PUC earlier said it discarded pre-2003 data under its documentation retention policy and so estimates for those years were obtained through journalistic accounts and through an analysis of PUC annual reports. Precise data for the 2003-2012 fiscal years were obtained under the Texas Open Records Act.

All told, the PUC received 8,558 electric complaints during the 2012 fiscal year, which is about 10 percent fewer than those received in FY 2011. The downward trend is a continuation of one that began in 2010, and parallels a drop in energy prices associated with changes in the natural gas commodity market.

The PUC in FY 2012 received the third fewest number of electricity related complaints since electric deregulation began roughly 10 years ago. The FY 2012 tally also represents the lowest number of electric complaints in Texas in seven years. Tempering that good news, however, is a separate finding that shows a continuing trend of more complaints under deregulation, not fewer.

The state’s electric deregulation law took effect in 2002. Under it, retail electric providers in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and other areas can compete for customers by offering different deals on price and terms of service. Most of Texas — but not all of it — is open to electric competition under the deregulation law.

The analysis reveals a dramatic four-fold increase in electricity complaints during the first year of deregulation with an inflated number ever since. The complaints registered in FY 2001 — the last year before deregulation took effect — totaled 2,062. A year later it was 8,547. The number of electricity complaints received annually by the PUC remains, on average, more than seven times greater under electric deregulation.

Although population growth and the increased use of the Internet may explain some of the jump in numbers, those factors alone cannot explain the immediate quadrupling of complaints during the first year of deregulation and the dramatic difference in numbers before and after the law. The average number of electricity-related complaints fielded by the PUC during pre-deregulation years was 1,315.8. After deregulation, it was 11,473.5.

The new TCAP analysis also shows a dramatic uptick in complaints relating to the PUC-authorized practice of placing holds on some accounts — sometimes without sufficient due process protections. The PUC recorded a nearly six-fold increase in such complaints, from 44 in FY 2011 to 303 in FY 2012. Such complaints also outstripped those relating to the installation of advanced meters, which were the subject of a raucous public hearing near the Texas Capitol in August.