Know your energy rights: fair service in deregulated areas

Jenna Careri
By Jenna Careri August 12th, 2020
For business

Your energy rights as a consumer are important.

Living in a state with a deregulated energy market doesn’t mean forgoing regulations for your electric service. On the contrary, all deregulated markets have certain rules in place to protect consumers (that’s you) as well as the energy companies who serve them.

When shopping for an electricity plan, it’s important to be aware of your rights and responsibilities before entering a contract. This will help you get all the facts about your energy service upfront and avoid conflicts down the road. Here’s what you should know.

Deregulated energy terms you should know

There are a number of energy-specific terms that may come up in the shopping process. Every state is different – which makes it all the more confusing – but there are a few core elements. First, you’ll see two main organizations that manage the energy market:

  • Provider, Supplier, or ESCO. This is the company that you buy electricity from, if you choose to switch from your utility company or your state requires you to do so. In this article, we will refer to these companies as providers.
  • PUC, URC, PSC, or PURA. These are all the different acronyms for the utility regulator in your state. This is a governing body that enforces the rights and responsibilities listed below and is usually who you will go to with any conflicts or complaints that arise. In this article, we’ll refer to all authorities as a PUC.

Beyond the actual companies, there is a host of documentation you’ll receive when you sign up for an energy plan. You’ll also be able to read through these before you sign up – just click on the “plan details” or “more info” buttons when you shop in the Choose Energy marketplace.

  • EFL, Terms of Service, or Disclosure Label. An Electricity Facts Label, for Texas-based consumers, or the Terms of Service and Disclosure Labels in other states, explain the details of the plan you are selecting. This includes your rate, whether it is fixed or variable, and what power sources the company uses.
  • YRAC or Consumer Bill of Rights. The “Your Rights as a Consumer” or Consumer Bill of Rights document is what tells you your rights and responsibilities as set by the PUC in your state.

Now that you know the company names and documents, it’s important to keep an eye out for some unsavory practices that can derail uninformed consumers and get providers in a lot of trouble with your state’s PUC.

  • Slamming and Cramming. These are bad practices used by energy providers to fool consumers and are illegal in most deregulated states. In both instances, you should contact your provider and your state’s PUC immediately.
    • This is when a provider switches your electricity service without your consent. This could mean switching your service to a different provider or to a different plan.
    • This is an extra charge on your electric bill that your provider did not notify you of in advance.

Your rights and responsibilities as a consumer

Regardless of which state you live in, all electricity customers are entitled to certain rights. These are enforced by the state PUC. You are within your rights to file a complaint against any provider who violates these rights, which include:

  • Non-discriminatory service and fair treatment of all customers
  • Protection of privacy for personal information, including your name, address, account number, etc.
  • Energy delivery and emergency services from the area’s utility company
  • Clear descriptions of contract terms and agreement including:
    • Price
    • Fees
    • Length of contract
    • Renewal terms
    • Cancellation process
  • Advance notice of contract expiration, as determined by your state’s PUC
  • Access to all written documents in the same language you used to enroll
  • Complaint resolution in a fair and timely manner

Depending on your state, your rights may extend further. In New York, for example, residents have the right to cancel within three days of receiving their agreement. In Texas, residents with electric-powered medical devices may apply for Critical Care or Chronic Care Residential Customer status. Check with your state’s PUC to see if you have other rights not covered here.

Of course, these rights also come with responsibilities you are expected to uphold. This includes paying all charges shown on your bill, paying any extra fees for disconnection, early termination, or late payment, and contacting your provider to request a deferred payment option.

The rights and responsibilities of your energy provider

Your energy provider also has certain rights and responsibilities, which go hand in hand with yours. For example, your right to non-discriminatory service is their responsibility to uphold, as is your right to a contract expiration notice. Other responsibilities include:

  • Providing electricity at the price agreed to in your contract
  • Notifying you of any changes to your service or bill
  • Providing written notice of future disconnection
  • Reconnecting service once payment resumes, in accordance with your contract

Meanwhile, just as you have a responsibility to pay your bills your energy provider has the right to send bills as determined in your contract. They are allowed to charge a deposit if your credit fails to meet a designated threshold. Providers also have the right to charge late fees for payments after billing deadlines and disconnect service for non-payment, as long as they follow the rules set by the state’s PUC.

Resolving conflicts with an energy provider

If you feel an energy provider has violated your rights or failed to uphold their responsibilities, you can lodge a complaint with the PUC in your state. PUCs usually recommend that you first contact your REP directly to resolve the issue. If this fails, you can escalate the problem in this order:

  1. File a complaint with the PUC. Often called an informal complaint, this lets the PUC know that there is an issue. The PUC will contact your provider, investigate, and deliver a verdict.
  2. If you are unhappy with the outcome, you can consider filing what is often called a formal complaint. While the informal process requires little work from you, the formal process is similar to a court case and may require a lawyer.

The intricacies of these processes depend on your state’s rules and regulatory authority. To contact your PUC or find more detailed information on the complaint process, find your state on our PUC page.

 

Jenna Careri is a writer covering the environment and energy industry. She is a Massachusetts native and graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and French.

Image/Shutterstock

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