A recent analysis by the consumer advocacy group Texas Coalition for Affordable Power (TCAP) shows that consumer complaints filed with the state’s Public Utility Commission (PUC) have risen again in 2014, after four years of decline.
In 2002, Texas became a “Power To Choose” state, and deregulation of the electric utility sector began. Following its commencement, consumer complaints spiked, going from an annual total of more than 2,000 in 2001 to 8,500 the following year, and 17,250 in the first full year of deregulation. In 2009, the total number of complaints was still nearly 16,000, but a decline began that bottomed out at 7,129 in 2013, a considerable drop from the post-deregulation spike but still a 300% increase over pre-deregulation totals. In 2014, the figure has risen to 7,608.
The downward trend for complaints in the prior few years could be attributed to customers’ becoming more familiar with navigating the different available plans and the process of switching providers to get the best fit, thereby cutting down on dissatisfaction. It could also simply be because low prices for natural gas kept electricity rates correspondingly low, and people are less likely to complain if they don’t feel they are paying too much. JD Power and Associates, a company that rates customer satisfaction, issued a report last year showing that customer satisfaction with power providers was at an all-time high since deregulation, and that customers in deregulated areas of Texas were more satisfied than customers in areas of the state that were not yet deregulated. It’s easy to reason that opening up the field to retail competition would tend to encourage good customer service, lest people flock to another provider.
So what explains the uptick in complaints, for the first time in four years? One culprit, single-handedly responsible for 7.5% of complaints, is “switch-holds”, a controversial practice instituted in 2010 that froze customers’ ability to switch to another power company until they settled outstanding bills owed to their current provider. Also, 11% of the complaints filed have been about meters. This figure may correlate to the rollout of new digital “smart meters”, as complaints tend to surge when new rules or equipment are introduced, according to a PUC spokesman. Other possible factors, according to industry representatives, may be the growing population of Texas and the ease of filing complaints online, but TCAP still notes that complaints are considerably higher now than before deregulation and notes that the situation is still “worth monitoring”, as it seems customers are still showing frustration with the market.