Kevin Hunt: What Happens When Their Electricity Complaint Meets The New Law?

A little more than a week before legislators approved a bill in early May safeguarding consumers from predatory pricing by electricity suppliers, Gail and Gerrie Bishop contacted The Bottom Line with a personal snapshot of why such protections are welcome and possibly even inadequate.

Their power play began when they agreed to pay Starion Energy, a supplier in Middlebury, 6.9 cents per kilowatt hour in December to provide electricity to their Glastonbury home. That's a bargain rate — the standard rate available through Connecticut Light & Power is 9.25 cents per kilowatt hour — but it didn't last long.

A Starion Energy spokeswoman who identified herself as Giselle but declined to give a last name said the company would not discuss the complaint. "Starion does not comment on any open complaint or customer's account," she said.

Here is what the new legislation — much of it effective in July — would mean to consumers like the Bishops, with excerpts from their complaint The Bottom Line and comments from state Consumer Counsel Elin Katz and state Attorney General George Jepsen's office, through spokeswoman Jaclyn Falkowski. (The consumer counsel and attorney general announced a $4.5 million settlement this week with another third-party electricity supplier, Energy Plus Holdings, related to 2012 complaints about the company's marketing tactics.)

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>> "In January, we discovered that Starion's generation rate was variable. We called the company on Jan. 23 — the company has a record of this call — to cancel our subscription to their service. However, we received a bill from them in February, March and again in April of this year," the Bishops wrote in their complaint to The Bottom Line.

New legislation: Introductory rate must be fixed. Consumers must receive 45 days notice following expiration of a fixed-contract term before they can be switched to a variable rate. The new law also says that effective July 2015, electricity bills must show any change in generation rate for the following month on the first page with other pricing information. Until then, consumers will receive quarterly notifications of pending rate changes from CL&P and their supplier.

Consumer Counsel [on the Bishop's case and others like it]: "PURA must initiate a proceeding to develop a standard summary form of the material terms and conditions of a contract for electric generation services, including whether the rate is fixed or variable." Of the cancellation: "Failing to process a cancellation was arguably a deceptive trade practice. . . . [though] the manner of cancellation might have been a term in the relevant contract."

Attorney General's office: "While not mentioned in the [Bishop's] complaint . . . we think the $50 limitation on termination fees and the elimination of termination fees for month-to-month variable rate service is an important part of the legislation. The prevalence of high termination fees were noted frequently in the complaints we received."

>> "On March 26, I called [Starion] to complain and was told that they had called us back in January but no one answered. (They did not leave a message for us on our machine). So they did not cancel our subscription because we had not answered their call back. They also claimed it would take two billing cycles to effect the cancellation and switch back to CL&P," the complaint said.

New legislation: When notified by residential customers, electricity suppliers must switch them to standard service within 72 hours. A switch from supplier to supplier cannot take more than 45 days.

Consumer Counsel: "The bill asked PURA to consider in a docket whether quicker switching between suppliers is possible. So the customer should call CL&P (or United Illuminating) to switch back to standard service to ensure they are switched [to a different supplier]. PURA also has to open a contested proceeding to develop and implement standards related to abusive switching practices (or, in this case, non-switching practices), among other activities of suppliers. We will work in that docket to ensure that clear standards are set."

>> "We are still receiving a bill from Starion but the generation rate has escalated from their initial rate of 6.9 cents per kilowatt hour to the present rate of 21.97 cents — an increase of 314 percent from Dec. 11, 2013 to March 24, 2014. We were forced to re-cancel our Starion subscription during the March 26 call because they would not honor our January cancellation," the complaint said.

Attorney General's office: "PURA has several active investigative dockets open involving individual suppliers as well as a general docket looking into industry practices. We expect that these ongoing proceedings as well as the proceedings required by the new law will complement each other and will result in meaningful consumer protections."

Consumer Counsel: "We are working to ensure PURA gets funding for necessary resources to increase enforcement efforts with respect to both pre-existing and new rules and standards. There are already rules in place that suppliers are routinely violating. Stricter enforcement, with higher fines and license revocation where a pattern of behavior is established, would go a long way toward eliminating bad behavior among electric suppliers. "

"It is also important to investigate whether suppliers are targeting vulnerable populations who can least afford to be charged high rates, yet are least likely to know and seek to enforce their rights, such as immigrants with limited English language skills."

What's Next?

The Bishops have filed a complaint with PURA and also contacted the office of the consumer counsel.

"We haven't dealt with Starion lately," says Gail Bishop, "other than to pay April's electric bill, which was $203 — more than twice our budget amount."

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