By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Shocking: Like many of you, Buzz recently received our electricity bill for July. Don't ask us how much it was; just picture a middle-aged man doing the bulging-eyes thing you see in old Warner Bros. cartoons, accompanied by the sound of a horn blaring, "Aaahoogaa!" Not a pretty sight. So, anticipating the enormous boofing we'll be getting at the end of this month now that the weather's really hot, we called Carol Biedrzycki, executive director of Texas Ratepayers' Organization to Save Energy (Texas ROSE), a pro-consumer utility watchdog group in Austin, looking for some good news. We're paraphrasing here, but the conversation went something like this:
Biedrzycki: Forget it. You're screwed.
But, we pleaded, wasn't deregulation of large chunks of Texas' utility market in 2002 supposed to mean cheaper electricity? There was a pause, and we swear that if it were possible, Biedrzycki's hand would have come out of our phone and given us a good smack.
"Anybody who ever believed that electric prices were going down because of deregulation was out of their mind," she said, pointing out that deregulation, by eliminating monopolies, added more middlemen to the delivery process—suppliers, retailers, transmission companies—each looking to make money. "How in the world can you involve more middlemen who want to make a profit [and have lower prices]?" she asked.
The utility companies, of course, point out that the price of natural gas used to generate electricity has skyrocketed, and they claim prices would be much worse if not for deregulation, which is encouraging investment in new supply. Righto. But, it's hard to cheer for free markets when Austinites—those socialists—are paying somewhere around one-third less per kilowatt hour with their regulated city utility than is Buzz out here in free America. And Buzz was a good free-market consumer. We shopped around for cheaper rates...back in, um, 2002. Then we got a bit lazy.
"What are you paying now per kilowatt hour?" Biedrzycki asked.
"Uh, we're not sure. We just sort of send off the money," we replied.
"Wow, that is lazy," she said.
OK, so maybe it's time we visit the Public Utility Commission's electric-shopping Web site (powertochoose.org). Our rate with our current plan seems to go up by the minute. Perhaps we should consider a fixed-rate plan? Biedrzycki gave us more good news: The PUC is considering new rules for retailers about how they disclose price information. Electric retailers have filed comments with the PUC suggesting that they should be able to change a fixed rate and still call it "fixed."