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The Nose

Power to Choose

Posted 6/7/2006

Good news, freemarketeers! It’s been a long time a-comin’, but electricity choice is finally here. And not a moment too soon. As many of you have no doubt heard, the originally envisioned 10 to 15 percent price break promised by electric deregulators in 1999 has turned into a potential 72 percent price increase. Oh well, that’s the market for you.

But we consumers don’t have to take that. We have choices, and we merely have to tap a few keys and slide the ol’ mouse around to find the best deal on electricity rates in Baltimore. To guide you through this simple process, the Nose did a little mystery shopping. We started out at the Maryland Public Service Commission’s web site (www.md-electric-info.com) where, since spending $6 million to educate the public about electricity choice in 2000, things have only gotten shinier. The friendly regulators listed no fewer than four potential power suppliers for the Nose’s Mount Vernon abode. We checked each one, and you should, too. It’s easy and fun.

The first thing we learned is that, thanks to deregulation, we Baltimorons can now get our juice from just about anywhere—even Commerce Energy all the way out in sunny California. A click on the company’s web site brings us to a price quote, per kilowatt hour (kWh), to compare with our current BGE rate. Commerce offers 10.1 cents for the “variable rate.” The Nose called the company’s customer service number and was told by a representative named Alonzo that the variable rate will change every 15 days and “can go up from 10 cents to $14” per kilowatt hour. How California is that? The company’s fixed rate is only 10.4 cents for a whole year—the only downside being that if we decide to cancel the contract, we have to pay Commerce Energy a $75 fee.

Signing up couldn’t be easier, Alonzo tells us. Although he confessed that “the system is down,” making it impossible to sign us up over the phone. He suggested we sign up using the web site. Just type your name, date of birth, address, telephone, e-mail (and your Social Security number if you choose to), check three boxes—that you understand you’re signing up for a year, that they do a credit check, yadda yadda—and boom! You’re locked in.

We decided to shop the competition a bit more.

Our next stop was Ohms Energy, which says, “We make it easy to enroll.” And how! To enroll in Ohm’s “opt-in” plan, you simply download the two-page “Letter of Authorization for the Request of Historical Usage Information,” fill it out with all the basics from your BGE bill, if applicable fill out “Attachment A,” fax it to another number, then go back online and fill out another form. Then wait for OHMS Energy’s offer of service to arrive in your e-mail box, then go back online and accept that offer.

Wow—that’s about as easy as swallowing our Xanax with a shot of bleach. But don’t despair consumers, there are lots of other choices left. There’s Pepco Energy Services, which sells wind electricity for a mere 13 cents per kilowatt hour, or Washington Gas and Electric, which promises “10% OFF New BGE Summer Generation Rates.” Now we’re talking! But we still don’t know the actual price Washington Gas and Electric charges for electricity. A look at the service agreement gives pause, too—they can shut us off for any reason at all, ranging from problems with their supplier to “acts of God.” We can only cancel service if we pay $75.

So, what does BGE charge? A call to the company’s customer-service line ([410] 685-0123) and a pound through the recordings brings us to a Mr. Ginzer. He tells us that our current price per kilowatt hour is 4.05 cents. That’s less than half of what Commerce or Ohms charge. Add 72 percent—the amount BGE’s electricity prices are expected to increase this summer—and the price is almost 7 cents. Still cheaper than the competition. But Mr. Ginzer tells us that 4.05 cents is actually the company’s “winter rate,” so that’s not quite accurate. BGE’s summer rate is higher, but that rate isn’t in effect yet—our next bill should reflect that amount when we receive it. That bill will also give us the important “price to compare,” so we can really shop.

Fortunately, BGE makes it oh-so-simple for us to figure that one out, too—just download the “price to compare calculator” in handy Excel spreadsheet form! It’s easy as pie, really!

Let’s see, “First, you need the usage data from 12 billing months. For Schedule G - General Service -Type 1, you need to add the energy usage (kWh) for the four summer bills (billing periods ending in June, July, August, and September). Separately, total the energy usage for the 8 non-summer bills. Select the Schedule G box below . . . ”

Market efficiency rocks!

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