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Skyrocketing electric bills shock consumers

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Wednesday, March 19, 2014, 12:26 a.m.
 

“Outrageous,” said Jeff Groh, who lives with his family on Upper Sandy Hollow Road in Vanderbilt. That was his reaction to the electric bill he received in February.

He said he switched to the electricity supplier IDT Energy about 18 months ago after growing tired of the telemarketer calls that often interrupted dinner.

He had been promised savings on his electric bill for his all-electric home, so he switched from West Penn Power to IDT.

Things were not bad until this winter. His January bill was about $360 for 4,200 kilowatt hours. Then he got his February bill for $939.48 for about 4,000 kwh. He called IDT to ask why his bill was so high, and the company told him it had to buy electricity on the spot market for a much higher rate because of the high demand.

Groh, a bricklayer, said he often is laid off during the winter months. The weather being unusually bad this winter, he has had to depend on unemployment. The huge February bill ate up most of his monthly income.

That is not all he is angry about.

“Part of our agreement (with IDT) when I switched was that we were to be put on a budget plan,” Groh said. “That never happened.”

He got another shock when he called IDT to tell them he was canceling his contract with the company and switching back to West Penn Power.

“They told me I was not under contract with them,” he said.

IDT, when contacted, said attempts have been made to help customers who were hit with the high bills.

“We are working to respond to the tens of thousands of emails and phone calls we have taken from our customers regarding their bills for service during the peak of this past winter,” said an IDT spokesperson, who asked to remain unnamed. “To cushion the impact of high energy costs, we are offering goodwill rebates that bring customer bills closer to the per kilowatt hour rate they paid before the peak cold weather. We have already put more than $2 million dollars back in the hands of our customers.”

The spokesperson said while Groh had canceled his account with IDT, the company is still providing a “substantial” rebate, which the Grohs should receive in two or three weeks.

The spokesperson said the uncommon high demand caused by the severe cold weather caused the prices paid by companies like IDT to spike. He added the rates are beginning to normalize and the spikes were experienced by all suppliers.

Groh's complaints are not uncommon.

“I've received a number of complaints,” said state Rep. Deberah Kula, D-52, the district where Groh lives. “And not all of them have been from my district.”

She said a legislative fix is not likely to happen quickly. A proposed piece of legislation must go through committee hearings, and then must be acted on by the Pennsylvania House and Senate.

One possibility might be a rate hike cap, which would hold down the costs to consumers when prices are in flux.

She said something should be done soon. “If we have a hot summer, like the cold winter, we will see this (rapidly increasing bills) cropping up again.”

Kula suggested it might be quicker for the state Public Utility Commission to modify regulations to allow consumers to make changes more quickly.

Jennifer Kocher, PUC press secretary, said the commission is beginning an accelerated process to change the switching time from the present 11 to 40 days to three days.

“Typically, it can take up to a year (for new regulations to be adopted,)” Kocher said. “We're going to shorten that. We hope that can be completed in six months or even three.”

Consumers can email or write the PUC with their comments by March 25. Contact information is available on the PUC website at http://www.puc.state.pa.us.

The Consumer Affairs Committee in the state House of Representatives will hold a hearing on Thursday in Harrisburg reportedly to dig through the skyrocketing rate increases inflicted this winter on the many Pennsylvanians receiving power through variable-rate electric generation plans.

Another hearing is scheduled for April 10 in the Allegheny County Courthouse, Gold Room, 436 Grant St., Pittsburgh, said Jerry Livingston, research analyst for the committee and for state Rep. Peter J. Daley, the Democrat chairman of the committee and representative for the 49th District in Washington and Fayette counties.

“Unfortunately, we cannot do anything retroactively,” said Livingston, who added that consumers could contact the state Attorney General's Office or the PUC.

He agreed that regulations allowing consumers to change their suppliers in a more timely manner is an answer.

Wendy Groh, Jeff Groh's wife, said she was glad to hear the family might soon receive a rebate. But she said their minds were made up.

“We've changed back to West Penn (Power), and we're never going to change again,” she said.

Karl Polacek is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kpolacek@tribweb.com or 724-626-3538.

 

 
 


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