Homeowners Group, D.C. Utility Spar Over Switching Charges
Switching games? Or mind games? This past week, a Washington,
D.C.-based nonprofit group, United Homeowners Association, called a
press conference to charge that nationwide, utilities are playing
"switching games" with consumers who attempt to move to a
lower-cost competitor, or who attempt to use online energy
The watchdog group based its analysis on natural gas
deregulation in two major U.S. markets - Washington, D.C. and
Atlanta, GA. Using that information, the UHA charged that the cost
savings available under energy deregulation, at least in the D.C.
area, actually may be denied to consumers, or take so long that the
consumers finally give up.
Using only one "bad" utility --- Washington Gas Light --- and
one "good" utility --- Atlanta Gas & Light --- UHA said it
found evidence that WGL customers who want to switch to alternative
energy companies, including online companies especially, would be
stymied in their efforts. One disgruntled former WGL customer was
brought to the podium to speak of his profoundly unhappy experience
with WGL, which he said had ignored his requests to change
services. WGL currently runs a pilot program for its customers
because deregulation is not fully implemented in the D.C. area.
UHA also disclosed that it had found that at Atlanta's AGL, less
than one in 10 customers experienced switching delays for customers
who requested another service. AGL is fully deregulated.
"Natural gas is the same product everywhere it is sold in the
U.S., and yet consumers face wildly different approaches to
deregulation," UHA President Jordan Clark charged. "Washington,
D.C. is a textbook example of how to make a complete mockery of
energy deregulation." Clark said that UHA was aware of "many dozens
of consumers" who had been frustrated by efforts to switch service
in the D.C. area, while in Atlanta, "consumers almost never have
problems switching, and, as a result, actually get a chance to save
under energy deregulation."
UHA apparently is unfamiliar with the multiple slamming cases in
Georgia, three of which resulted in settlements with the Georgia
Public Service Commission. The last slamming settlement took place
only two weeks ago, resulting in retail marketer Energy America
having to pay $100,000, including $75,000 to an energy assistance
fund for elderly and low income customers and $25,000 to the state
Clark noted that gas deregulation is under way in 32 states,
seven are the first phase of the process, and 12 states have
deregulation pilot programs. Another 10 states are "actively"
"The message here is something needs to be understood by
lawmakers and homeowners across the nation," Clark said. "So-called
'pilot programs' that leave ex-monopoly utilities in charge of the
day-to-day side of implementing deregulation are a train wreck
waiting to happen. You can't leave the fox guarding the chicken
coop and expect anything but the predictable result."
Ironically, UHA's press and media relations are handled by The
Hastings Group, a Virginia-based company that also works for
PowerTrust.com, an energy marketer that offers natural gas, propane
and heating oil through its D.C.-based online company. Soon, it
also is expected to offer electricity to customers in the same area
that WGL now serves.
A conflict of interests? Not according to Hastings Group Senior
Partner Scott Stapf, who told NGI that he did not see "how those
relationships will pose conflicts of interest...and I don't see us
disclosing every other organization with whom we work every time we
send out a press release." However, The Hastings Group is actually
listed on PowerTrust.com's web site as the place to go for more
information about the company.
WGL officials felt a little differently about The Hastings
Group's involvement with UHA. WGL corporate spokesman Tim Sargeant
said the company's pilot program is now serving about 165,000
customers in D.C., Maryland and Virginia with few problems.
"This program comes under a lot of scrutiny by the commissions,
and we want input and they want input," Sargeant said. "We've never
heard from this group (UHA), and we weren't even invited to offer
our comments." Sargeant said WGL did not even know about the UHA
press conference until reporters began calling when it was over.
Sargeant said WGL's program is "going well," with few complaints
from customers. The "Customer Choice" program has about 30 active
energy suppliers now. PowerTrust.com currently is not one of them.
To prevent "slamming," the practice of unauthorized switching by
suppliers, WGL requires an accurate customer account number be
included on the authorized release submitted by the customer before
enrolling in another program, or once in the program, to change to
WGL said through a written statement Friday that it is an "avid
proponent of full-scale natural gas energy competition so that all
consumers may take advantage of the potential economic
opportunities and choices that a competitive market provides."
No changes are planned in the natural gas program because, said
Sargeant, no changes have been requested by the overseeing
"Washington Gas takes issue with allegations made against it
recently by UHA, a group claiming to address critical homeowners'
issues," said the WGL statement. "Washington Gas has been involved
for years working side-by-side with regulators, consumer advocates
and other interested parties, in the collaborative process of
addressing such issues as consumer protection and greater market
access in the deregulation process."
Overall, WGL serves about 850,000 residential, commercial and
industrial customers throughout metro D.C. and the surrounding
Carolyn Davis, Houston