Consumer Protection and Assistance

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Read our recent report with cautions for Texas ratepayers. 2013 Summary of REP fees

Texas ROSE is your voice at the PUC

Texas ROSE has been advocating for strong customer protection rules at the Public Utility Commission (PUC) since deregulation began. Texas ROSE has participated in every major customer protection rulemaking at the PUC since 1999. We have also worked actively with Austin Energy to upgrade its customer protection rules.

About Your Electric Provider

When you have problems related to your electricity, you can use this guide to help you locate the people who are most likely to be able to help you. The customer protection rules enforced by the  PUC make it easier for competitive retail electric providers (REPs) to disconnect service and refuse a customer electric based on the company’s own credit qualification criteria.

First, you must determine which type of electric service provider you have. You can get help after you decide which of the following situations apply to you:

  • My electric utility has been deregulated and I am able to choose my electric provider.
  • My electric utility is regulated.
  • My electricity is provided by a city.
  • My electricity is provided by an electric cooperative.

If you are uncertain, the following information should help you decide.

Deregulated Service Areas

Some areas of Texas are deregulated where customers have the right to choose their electric provider.

The following are the regulated companies responsible for transmission and distribution of electricity. Customers living in these service territories must choose a REP. The deregulated service areas are:

  1. AEP Central
  2. AEP North
  3. Centerpoint
  4. ONCOR
  5. TNMP

In the deregulated service areas, there are REPs certified by the PUC to sell electricity to residential customers.

Regulated Service Areas

Some areas of Texas are still served by fully regulated utilities. Customers in regulated service areas can only buy power from the utility certificated to serve the area. These are:

  1. El Paso Electric Company
  2. Entergy Gulf States, Inc.
  3. Southwestern Electric Power Company
  4. Southwestern Public Service Company

Municipally-Owned Utilities

Some areas of Texas are served by municipally-owned utilities. Each city council has the authority to “opt in” to the deregulated market. Some examples are:

  1. Austin Energy (City of Austin)
  2. City Public Service (San Antonio)
  3. Lubbock
  4. Brownsville
  5. Georgetown
  6. Fredericksburg
  7. Giddings
  8. and many more

No municipal utility has opted into deregulation.

Rural Electric Cooperatives

Some areas are served by rural electric cooperatives. Each electric cooperative board has the authority to deregulate. Some examples of electric cooperative are:

  1. Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative
  2. Guadalupe Valley Electric Cooperative
  3. Pedernales Electric Cooperative
  4. Bandera Electric Cooperative
  5. Central Texas Electric Cooperative
  6. DeWitt Electric Cooperative
  7. Hamilton Electric Cooperative
  8. Navasota Valley Electric Cooperative
  9. and Tri-County Electric Cooperative

Two electric cooperatives, San Patricio Electric and Nueces Electric, have voted to opt into the open market.

Complaints

If you have a problem with any electric provider, you should first contact the electric provider and ask them to fix it. If you get an answer that you do not like from the customer service line, ask to speak to a supervisor. Supervisors have the discretion to grant exceptions that many customer service representatives answering the phones do not have. If you get an answer you do not like from the supervisor, file a complaint.

Filing a Complaint

To file a complaint, you will need to contact the PUC. Like most aspects of dealing with electric utilities, the complaint process varies for regulated and deregulated providers, municipally-owned utilities and electric cooperatives.

Deregulated and Regulated Service Areas

Complaint filing information can be found on the PUC website. Or you may call, toll free at 1-888-782-8477, in Austin at (512) 936-7120, or with a TTY at 1-800-735-2988. You can email a complaint to customer@puc.state.tx.us with your account number and address and brief information about your issue. If you are without power, be sure to state this in your voice mail message or email message.

The PUC also is a resource for complaints against electric cooperatives and municipal utilities. If a cooperative or municipal utility says it follows PUC rules, the next logical step is to verify the standard set by the PUC rule.

Municipally-Owned Utilities

Municipal utilities should have established procedures for handling customer complaints. If there are no clear guidelines available, write to the mayor and city council members or attend a city council meeting and ask for a decision.

Rural Electric Cooperatives

Complaints by electric cooperative customers should be written, addressed to the local utility office and copied to the board of directors. Most boards have an established regular meeting date that must be posted in a public place. Most cooperatives set aside a period for public comments and input at those meetings. A listing of board members and meeting times should be available from the electric cooperative. If not, electric cooperative board information can be obtained by calling Texas Electric Cooperatives, an industry association based in Austin at (512) 454-0311.

Customer Protection Standards Vary

While the PUC regulates only investor-owned utilities, many electric cooperatives and municipal utilities say they follow the PUC’s customer protection rules. The PUC’s rules serve as a benchmark or industry standard and can be used to justify exceptions from weaker unregulated utility standards.

The PUC’s Substantive Rules can be found on the PUC website.

Rules and policies applied by electric cooperatives and municipal utilities require research. To get started, call the cooperative or the city and ask for information or search their website for the customer service and protection standards set by the cooperative’s board of directors or the city council.

If a cooperative claims to follow PUC rules, be sure to check the PUC rules and ask that they follow them. Electric cooperatives and municipal utilities will be required to meet the same standards as other REPs but the standards will be enforced locally, not at the PUC.

Important Customer Protection Rules

How to Prevent Disconnection of Your Electricity

The best way to prevent disconnection of your electricity is to stay in contact with your electric provider when you have trouble making your payments. Make alternative payment arrangements. Ask for a deferred payment plan and a levelized or average payment plan where you would pay the same amount every month. Most important, make sure you make a deferred payment arrangement you can afford to pay. If you default on the deferred payment plan, you will be disconnected.

NOTE: If you are having problems with a delinquent bill, your REP is required to offer you a deferred payment plan but is not required to provide a payment plan unless you meet the REP’s credit requirements.
NOTE: After you have been disconnected, be sure to ask the REP whether or not the REP will restore your service once you have paid in full.

Prohibitions on Disconnection

Under certain circumstances, a regulated electric utility is prohibited from disconnecting a customer, including:

  • when a heat advisory is in effect,
  • when temperatures are below freezing for more than 24 hours,
  • on weekends or holidays or the day immediately preceding a weekend or holiday where there is no one available to accept payment,
  • when disconnection of service will cause a critical care customer residing at the residence to become seriously ill or more seriously ill,
  • when the company receives a pledge, letter of intent, purchase order, or other notification that the energy assistance provider is forwarding sufficient payment to continue service.

Disconnection of Standard Service

You have standard service if you buy power from a REP, have established credit with the REP, and pay for power once a month after your meter is read to see how much you used. If a standard customer’s bill is delinquent, a REP may follow procedures to disconnect the delinquent customer’s service agreement. Your electricity can be disconnected in as little as 16 days after your bill is past due. A disconnection notice can be mailed when your account is 10 days past due, giving you six additional days to pay prior to a disconnection. Please note that most REPs charge customers a fee for sending a disconnection notice.

Disconnection of Prepaid Service

Prepaid Service is relatively new. Prepaid service is where the customer pays into an account. As you use electricity, the cost of the electricity is deducted from the account. Written disconnection notices are not provided to prepaid customers. Disconnection notices are sent electronically one to seven days prior to disconnection.

Note: Be extra careful about signing up for prepaid service. Many people who take prepaid service get disconnected. There is no limit to the number of times you can lose electricity service in a month. It all depends on how much money is in your account.

Security Deposits

PUC rules allow REPS to use credit ratings to establish credit for service. A REP may refuse service to a customer who does not have a satisfactory credit rating or no credit rating. Although some REPs do accept security deposits to establish credit, the POLR (Provider of Last Resort) is the only company required to accept a security deposit to establish credit. The PUC’s customer protection rules state that a security deposit may not exceed the greater of 80 days (one fifth of average annual usage) or the next two months’ estimated bills.

Customers who qualify for the LITE-UP TEXAS rate discount must be allowed to pay any security deposit over $50.00 in two installments.

Security Deposit Waivers

Under the PUC’s rules, a customer 65 years of age or older who is not delinquent in payment of any electric service account meets credit requirements sufficient to avoid payment of a security deposit.

Another special provision is: “A residential customer may be deemed as having established satisfactory credit if the customer has been determined to be a victim of family violence as defined in the Texas Family Code §71.004, by a family violence center or by treating medical personnel. This determination shall be evidenced by submission of a certification letter developed by the Texas Council on Family Violence. The certification letter may be submitted directly by use of a toll-free fax number to the affiliate REP or POLR (Provider of Last Resort).”

A customer may also waive a security deposit if the customer is medically indigent. The criteria can be found in the PUC rules.

Late Fees

A REP may not charge late fees on the bills of customers enrolled in the LITE-UP Texas program. All other residential customers are charged a one-time late fee of 5 percent on the balance due.