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Stories

Understanding your electric bill, part 1

“Shocked” by your electric bill?
Here’s what you need to know

In 2014, many locals were unpleasantly surprised to see that the rates they were paying for electricity to power their homes and apartments had nearly doubled in their new bill. How could this be?

The history and structure behind your electric utility services
What's a "competitive supplier"?

The answer goes back to a decision, 16 years prior, by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to deregulate electricity and allow “competitive power suppliers” to generate and sell electricity to you.

Before 1998, only a few distribution utilities, such as our local National Grid and, as it is now known, Eversource, were allowed to generate and sell electricity, as regulated by the Department of Public Utilities (DPU); these companies did it all: the ownership and maintenance of the power lines, poles, and meters, as well as the generation and delivery of the electricity to you. From 1998 and even today, National Grid and Eversource have still maintained the equipment and delivered the electricity, but you have been free to choose another competitive supplier, the company that actually generates the electricity. These competitive suppliers are licensed by the DPU, but not regulated like the delivery companies.

Lynch Garrett and internOn June 2, Benefits Counseling hosted a presentation on safely navigating the options when considering competitive suppliers of electricity with, from left to right, Assistant Attorney General Ann Lynch; Janice Garrett, Director of the Consumer Protection Unit of the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office; and Consumer Protection Intern David Jeznach.

If you do not choose a competitive supplier, Eversource and National Grid still have to deliver the electricity to you. They put the supply out to bid, select the lowest-cost option, and then keep that as their default supplier and fixed rate for a six-month period. National Grid’s last cycle ran November 1, 2014, to April 30, 2015, during which time the cost went up to $0.16/kWh. The current cycle runs May 1, 2015, to October 31, 2015, and the cost has now gone down. Eversource’s current cycle runs January 1 to June 30, 2015, and the cost is higher than normal at $0.14/kWh; as of July 1 and through December 31, 2015, the cost has gone down. Even if you change suppliers, you still get your bill from Eversource or National Grid as usual. Whoever your supplier is, chosen or assigned, the name of that supplier will be labeled on your bill under “delivery supply detail.”

Rates in winter tend to be higher anyway. It’s just that, this past winter, rates jumped, shifting abruptly from the steady rates everyone had grown accustomed to, and many customers wondered what was going on. Competitive suppliers took advantage of this to sell “better rates” – perhaps they said, “We can give you $0.14/kWh for three years,” and since this looked better than National Grid’s $0.16/KWH, you signed up. Come spring, however, what was $0.02 cheaper could now be $0.04 more expensive.

Consumers file reports about deceptive marketing practices

“We started hearing that folks were getting approached about their electric rates,” says Assistant Attorney General Ann Lynch. Atty. Lynch works in civil rights and consumer protection litigation in Western Massachusetts, seeking restitution for consumers for “unfair or deceptive acts or practices.”

After numerous reports, Atty. Lynch worked with Janice Garrett, Director of the Consumer Protection Unit of the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office, to understand the issue and come up with suggestions for concerned consumers.

What do I do if I receive an unwanted phone call from a competitive electric supplier’s telemarketer?

“Telemarketers are becoming more aggressive,” says Garrett, with customers reporting marketing behaviors that made them feel scared or threatened. There have been reports of cursing and violations of the Do Not Call Registry. Telemarketers can also change the way their name and number display on your caller-ID. Some scammers have made the caller ID display, “Sheriff’s Office,” or even your own phone number. Even if the caller leaves a message, they could still be running a scam.

If you see or hear something suspicious, what’s the best advice? Just don’t pick up. And if you do pick up and feel uncomfortable, it’s okay to hang up.

“If you’re on that Do Not Call Registry, and they’re calling you,” says Garrett, “it’s okay to hang up on them because they’re breaking the law.”

To check to see if you are on the Do Not Call Registry or to register your phone number(s), call 1-888-382-1222 from the phone number you wish to register or visit donotcall.gov.

Someone came to my neighbor’s door wanting to talk about her electric bill and said he was from Eversource. He even had a badge. What do I do if he shows up at my door?

Eversource says that they’re not knocking on doors; they don’t need to sell you their rate. Someone who claims to be from Eversource and comes to your door flashing a badge is impersonating a utility company, which is against the law. 

Don’t show anyone your bill or give away your account number – if you do, they can automatically switch you, even without your consent, which is against the law.

You can check with your town about rules and regulations regarding door-to-door solicitations.

“Any time someone knocks on your door, you need to be cautious,” says Garrett.

Whatever your reason for concern, the DPU and Consumer Protection are available to help. Call the DPU hotline number toll-free at (877) 886-5066 with questions about your electric bill and supplier. Call Garrett at her Greenfield Consumer Protection office to make a complaint, Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., at 413-774-5102.

In addition to contacting Garrett with your concerns, you could call 911 if you feel uncomfortable or think that someone is falsely impersonating a representative from your electric company.

I want to continue reading. Take me to parts 2 and 3.