Retail Customers Switch on the Net

One of the biggest challenges to creating active retail competition among residential and small business energy customers is the red tape customers must plough through at their local utility, but in California the trend is moving toward doing these transfers quicker and more inexpensively on the Internet, beginning later this spring (May 20).

Southern California Gas Co. has filed its proposed rates with state regulators and is on track to process requests electronically from aggregators who sign up residences and businesses switching their supplier from SoCalGas to the aggregator's supply source.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and San Diego Gas and Electric Co. so far are not offering to switch gas customers' suppliers via the Internet, according to spokespersons for the two companies. However, they both use electronic bulletin boards and provide information on their Web sites to guide customers through the process of switching to another gas supplier. All three utilities jointly participate in the Energy Marketplace, a Web site developed to match wholesale gas buyers and sellers.

The California Public Utilities Commission in February directed the three major investor-owned gas utilities in the state to offer an electronic system for core aggregation customers similar to that provided by electric utility counterparts under the California industry restructuring begun earlier this month. SoCalGas emphasized that its plan does not change the process for customers switching their gas suppliers, it just allows that process to be completed much more quickly.

The Internet-based Energy Marketplace will be used as the so-called "platform" for electronic processing of the direct access service requests for SoCalGas to transport the supplies being purchased outside of the utility system. For gas transactions, aggregators are expected to save because they will only need to invest in Internet access. In the electric aggregation programs, so far, aggregators have to invest in additional hardware or software, or pay a processing fee.

SoCalGas and the other two utilities for some time have been talking about making changes that would boost the amount of participation in the retail gas program by making it easier and more attractive for third-party aggregators to go after the small, mass market customers.

A SoCalGas spokesperson indicated that it expects to be ready in advance of the May 20 CPUC deadline to start the electronic service and then plans to add other services that will be what the utility calls "even more attractive to aggregators and other utilities." Richard Nemec, Los Angeles

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