House officials hold hearing on utility rates

April 10, 2014

Although spring finally arrived, many Pennsylvanians are still feeling the financial woes of a long, harsh winter.

For electricity consumers with variable rate plans, last season’s frigid temperatures brought abnormally high bills.

Now, the Public Utility Commission is working to address the issue going forward. During a public hearing yesterday morning held by the House Consumer Affairs Committee at Allegheny County Courthouse, the PUC, Office of Consumer Advocate and utility officials discussed what went wrong year.

State Rep. Pete Daley, D-California, said the PUC is trying to “fast-track some regulation” to reduce spikes in variable rates and to allow consumers the opportunity to switch power providers in three days instead of several weeks or a month.

The PUC reported receiving 4,800 complaints and almost 9,000 calls regarding high electric bills this winter, according to Daley’s website. Also at the hearing were consumer and business advocates who explained “how horrific the impact was on many businesses and individuals,” Daley said.

Thursday evening, Daley held a workshop session at Bentleyville’s fire hall to answer questions consumers had about their power bills. The state House is likely to introduce bipartisan legislation in coming months to address electricity spikes, Daley said.

State Rep. Brandon Neuman, D-North Strabane, said consumers’ bills were especially high this winter because of higher demand for heat during the “polar vortex” coupled with a power shortage.

Grid operator PJM Interconnection is expected to provide up to 175,000 megawatts of power, but this winter PJM fell short by about 40,000 megawatts, Neuman said. As a result, PJM had to purchase power from other providers to supply consumers.

“The consumer is the one who’s getting short changed on a promise that PJM failed to deliver,” Neuman said.

After the closure of two coal-fired power plants in Washington and Greene counties last fall, consumers were warned to cut back on electric consumption during two cold snaps in January. The problem was caused by difficulty supplying natural-gas power plants during the extreme cold weather.

Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, announced last week new legislation that would require a closer review of plans to deactivate coal-fired power plants.

In addition to potential legislation, Neuman said the PUC is working to make sure power providers’ contracts are clearly stated, with the most pertinent sections – variable rates and cancellations – highlighted for consumers to see.

Neuman urges consumers with questions or concerns about their power bills to contact the PUC “to hold companies accountable if they should be held accountable.”

Emily Petsko joined the Observer-Reporter as a staff writer in June 2013. She graduated from Point Park University with a dual bachelor's degree in journalism and global cultural studies.

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