MASON — This year marks the 20th anniversary of Ohio's energy deregulation, known as Energy Choice.
It gives consumers a choice in their gas and electric supplier, and in theory can save customers several hundred dollars a year.
But it's been dogged by thousands of complaints over the years.
Questionable sales tactics
One common complaint concerns aggressive sales people, who call or knock at your door offering dramatic savings, or a "rebate" on your Duke bill.
Some door-to-door sales people may even claim they are working "with Duke" to save you money, as Duke Energy has warned about several times in recent years.
The second complaint concerns rates that rise dramatically after an initial promotional rate comes to an end.
Rate hikes after contract ends
Larry Carvalho thought he was doing the smart thing when he decided to switch providers from Duke Energy to Ohio Natural Gas a few years ago.
"It was a 12-month plan, and I expected it to stay on a 12-month plan every year," he said of the deal, which provided him savings compared with Duke.
But he didn't look closely until he recently received a $330 gas bill.
"For one year I may have saved money, but after that I think I have been overpaying so much," he said.
Carvalho says he discovered he wasn't just overpaying for a month or two, which wouldn't have been that big a deal.
He thinks he was paying more for several years compared to what he would have paid to Duke, had he never switched suppliers.
Why? Carvalho believes he accidentally tossed a letter that explained his contract was ending, and that he was moving to a "variable rate plan," thinking it was junk mail.
With his rate now fluctuating based on demand, he estimates that in January 2021 alone, he paid $44 dollars more than had he stayed with Duke. (He says his variable rate was over $5 per hundred cubic feet of gas, compared with Duke's $3 rate.)
"I looked over the past 12 months," he said, "and I figured I paid $160 more."
How to protect yourself from rate shocks
Ohio's Public Utilities Commission, the PUCO, says it is important for Energy Choice customers to:
- Watch for letters announcing an end to your contract, typically after 6 months to a year. Call the provider when you receive it, to negotiate a new promotional rate.
- Check your monthly bill carefully for sudden jumps in rates.
- Occasionally, go to the PUCO's Apples to Apples website, to see what other energy companies are charging, and to make sure you are not overpaying.
PUCO spokesman Matt Schilling told us customers should "ask suppliers prior to signing anything about what happens at the end of their term or introductory price. Any customer experiencing difficulties or confusion with their supplier is encouraged to reach out to the PUCO Call Center at 800-686-7826 or write to us online at PUCO.ohio.gov."
When Carvalho called the gas provider to complain, he says, "they said it was all in my contract, and that they didn't do anything wrong."
An Ohio Natural Gas spokeswoman told us all customers are sent a warning letter at least 45 days before their contract comes up, at which point they are informed of their new rate, and given the option to leave or renegotiate. (Read full statement below.)
But many customers, like Carvalho, either toss or lose the letter, or forget about it. And by law, providers are required to give you only one warning of an impending rate hike.
Ohio's PUCO says Energy Choice has been a success.
But with any alternate gas or electric supplier, make sure you know when your contract ends, and be sure to take action at that point, so you don't waste your money.
FULL STATEMENT FROM OHIO NATURAL GAS:
Ohio Natural Gas is committed to delivering exceptional natural gas service by providing clear, open and honest communication with our customers to help meet their energy needs. It is our policy to send at least one written notice, in a clearly marked envelop, to customers on fixed plans at least 45 days before their plan expires. In order to maintain a consistent level of service, customers who fail to respond to this notice are automatically renewed. Because prices are influenced by several factors, the renewal price might be higher or lower than the expiring plan. Customers with questions about their bill may reach out to us at 1-888-466-4427 to discuss their plan.
Don't Waste Your Money" is a registered trademark of Scripps Media, Inc. ("Scripps").
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