Our opinion: Electric sticker shock

There is a perception in some quarters that any regulation regarding business and industry and their relationship to consumers is a bad thing.

That is, until something goes awry.

Then the cry goes up, “Why doesn’t my government take care of this?” or, “I’m calling my congressman.”

Such is the case with some electric bills that have arrived at homes in Pennsylvania over the past couple months, bills that have suddenly, and without warning, increased balances due several times the amount of previous bills.

Take the case of Robin Hagins, who lives near Johnstown.

Her bill for February was $756.23, about $520 higher than the month before, even though it indicated that her energy useage was virtually the same as in January.

People aren’t used to sticker shock in utility bills, but thousands of Pennsylvanians are feeling the same bite Robin Hagins is feeling. She signed up with an alternative electricity company participating in the state’s Electric Choice program. In fact, more than 2 million Pennsylvanians did the same with a number of companies, hoping they could do a bit better on their electric bills than sticking with Penelec or Pennsylvania Rural Electric for both distribution and transmission.

It is true that the severity of winter weather this year has put a strain on energy supplies in general, including natural gas, heating oil, propane and electricity, but the doubling or tripling of rates for electricity has drawn the attention of Pennysylvania’s attorney general and the Public Utility Commission, even though the PUC does not oversee rates of third-party suppliers – only their business practices.

That last bit, the lack of rate oversight by the PUC, may also be something of a shock for those who assumed that some state agency would be looking after their interests.

Yes, something has gone awry.

But, that’s a chance you take when you’re looking for a deal with no guarantees. Contracts stipulate that companies provide an outline of terms the company must follow in providing energy. And, because the state has not put a ceiling on variable rates, consumers can be susceptible to significant fluctuations. That is, you can pay less, or you can pay a lot more.

In addition to the attorney general’s review, the PUC is looking into the situation to determine whether it should modify some of its oversight of marketing practices.

Until these reviews are complete and some conclusions drawn by either the PUC or the attorney general, we have no specific reason to believe that anything is happening here other than that which is covered by the ancient proverb: caveat emptor (let the buyer beware).