The Texas Public Utility Commission directed staff on Thursday to make changes to the state’s electricity shopping website after receiving complaints that companies were using it to promote misleading offers.
The site, powertochoose.org, lists retail electricity deals as well as complaint data about electric companies. Electricity shoppers can use the website to sort deals based on price.
But some companies have found ways to game the site so that it prominently lists offers that deliver improbably low prices. Many unsuspecting Texans who avail themselves of these seemingly too-good-to-be-true offers may end up paying much more later.
In June PUC chair DeAnn Walker directed staff to recommend website changes. “We’re seeing an increase in complaints and this concerns me,” she said at the time. In response, staff submitted an Aug. 2 memo describing three new proposals.
On Thursday, the PUC authorized staff to move forward with their proposals:
- The website will be restructured so it allow users to easily filter out single offers with different per-kilowatt-hour prices for different kilowatt-hour usage levels. This addresses concerns that some Retail Electric Providers have mathematically structured their offers to have exceedingly low prices for a customer that uses 1,000 kilowatt hours per month, but much higher per-kWh prices if that same customer consumes a different amount. Such offers often appear on the first page of results when sorted by cost, even though the actual price for a customer with normal usage habits may be much higher than what appears on the page.
- PUC staff will limit the number of offers that REPS can submit to powertochoose.org. This addresses complaints that some REPs have flooded the website with nearly indistinguishable offers. This strategy unfairly increases the prominence of these electric companies on powertochoose.org while simultaneously sowing customer confusion.
- PUC staff will add information to the website that instructs users on how to use it for purchasing electricity. Currently the website includes consumer information about the competitive electricity market in general, but no tips for using the website itself. Staff also recommends the creation of new instructional videos to help users navigate the site, according to staff.
Walker on Thursday also questioned whether there should be some consideration of removing the shopping function altogether from powertochoose.org. She said staff should look for more long-term fixes and noted that she already has received word that some REPs have begun looking for ways to circumvent the newest changes.
In a statement on Thursday, the Texas Coalition for Affordable Power, a city coalition, called for continued vigilance.
“We’re pleased the Public Utility Commission has taken steps today to protect powertochoose.org,” TCAP said. “The website is owned by the public, and as such the public has a right to expect that it remains transparent and free of deceiving offers. Vigilance is key. The PUC should continually monitor powertochoose to ensure that companies don’t unfairly game the site.
“The website’s shopping function is especially important. We believe that without it powertochoose loses much of its relevance. The shopping function helps consumers, supports the competitive energy market and it deserves continued support — now and in the future.”
This is not the first time the PUC has considered reforming powertochoose.org. In 2016 former PUC chair Donna Nelson authorized changes after REPs began adding credits and charges to their offers in order to have them listed more prominently on the website.
The agency also has received hundreds of complaints about powertochoose.org, although many Texans also have encouraged regulators to fix the site and not abandon it.
You can read the PUC staff’s recommendations here.