Utilities are playing “switching games” with consumers whoattempt to use lower-cost competitors or who attempt to use onlineenergy companies, charged the nonprofit United HomeownersAssociation yesterday. The watchdog group, which based its analysisof natural gas deregulation on two major U.S. markets —Washington, D.C. and Atlanta, GA — said the cost savingsavailable under energy deregulation actually may be denied toconsumers, or take so long that the consumers finally give up.

UHA said it found evidence that as many as three out of fourWashington Gas Light (WGL) customers who want to switch toalternative energy companies through its pilot program may bestymied with “unreasonable” delays. In contrast, UHA found thatless than one in 10 customers of Atlanta Gas & Light (AGL),which has a fully deregulated program, experienced switching delaysfor customers who requested a competitor.

“Natural gas is the same product everywhere it is sold in theU.S., and yet consumers face wildly different approaches toderegulation,” UHA President Jordan Clark said. “Washington, D.C.is a textbook example of how to make a complete mockery of energyderegulation.” Clark said that UHA was aware of “many dozens ofconsumers” who had been frustrated by efforts to switch service inthe D.C. area, while in Atlanta, “consumers almost never haveproblems switching, and, as a result, actually get a chance to saveunder energy deregulation.”

UHA has begun to issue warnings about switching problems, itsaid, because many states have begun the energy deregulationprocess using different approaches to encourage price competitionfor energy products. Natural gas deregulation is under way in 32states, seven are the first phase of the process, and 12 stateshave deregulation pilot programs. Another 10 states are “actively”considering deregulation, according to UHA.

“The message here is something needs to be understood bylawmakers and homeowners across the nation,” Clark said. “So-called’pilot programs’ that leave ex-monopoly utilities in charge of theday-to-day side of implementing deregulation are a train wreckwaiting to happen. You can’t leave the fox guarding the chickencoop and expect anything but the predictable result.”

UHA had one WGL customer at the press conference yesterday whocomplained about the problems he had switching services. However,WGL corporate spokesman Tim Sargeant said the company’s 165,000customers in D.C., Maryland and Virginia have made few complaintsand have successfully switched natural gas suppliers through”Customer Choice” program.

“This program comes under a lot of scrutiny by the commissions,and we want input and they want input,” Sargeant said. “We’ve neverheard from this group (UHA), and we weren’t even invited to offerour comments.”

Sargeant said WGL’s program is “going well,” with few complaintsfrom customers. It has about 30 active energy suppliers now, andadditional energy marketers are always invited to participate. Nochanges are planned in the natural gas program because, saidSargeant, no changes have been requested by the overseeingregulatory agencies.

Overall, WGL serves about 850,000 residential, commercial andindustrial customers throughout metro D.C. and the surroundingregion through 22 miles of pipeline. The “Customer Choice” pilotprogram allows customers to buy their gas from one of severalthird-party suppliers, with WGL still delivering the gas and takingresponsibility for customer emergencies.

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