Expert offers tips to businesses on handling shocking electric bills

By JENNIFER BUTCHARTStaff writer
Small businesses looking to save money often switch to third-party electric suppliers that promise low rates, but the businesses later find their rates have doubled or tripled.
The Venango Area Chamber of Commerce hosted a lunchtime learning session Tuesday for chamber members looking to regain control of their electric bills.
Erin Green, the president of Verify Services of Waterford, conducted a presentation for about 10 representatives from local businesses. Verify Services is a telecommunications consulting firm that specializes in auditing businesses that might overpay on their phone services.
But lately, Green has also been dealing with electric bills, and many of her clients’ rates have gone up significantly.
Green said there are five reasons for the recent increases in electric costs.
— Decreased production of electric since 2010
— Three power plants closing in northeast Ohio
— Increased capacity charges
— Excessive, sustained cold weather in January and February
— Month-to-month plans with third-party suppliers
Consumers play a role in only one of those reasons – the month-to-month plans with third party suppliers.
“You should go back to your third-party supplier and check your contract if you see a change in your electric bill,” Green said.
Penelec always notifies customers of supplier changes, but only if they are informed of the change by the supplier. Sometimes suppliers fail to send a notice to Penelec, and sometimes suppliers switch a customer’s account without authorization.
Green suggests asking a potential supplier specific questions before determining whether to switch.
— Are you licensed in Pennsylvania?
— What are your monthly billing fees?
— Who can I call about billing questions?
— Can I have two to three references of other businesses you deal with?
It’s important to have a solid contact number for billing questions – sometimes customers can’t seem to contact a supplier with issues via fax, phone or e-mail.
Green said it’s also important to get references from the supplier. Asking multiple business owners if a particular supplier is reputable, and has good business practices, can prevented unexpected bill increases.
“If you’re on a month-to-month variable rate contract, you need to do something,” Green said. “Consider signing a contract with a fixed rate, but be aware of when that contract expires. It’s your responsibility to know when your contract expires,” Green said.
Suppliers will not inform customers their fixed rate contract is expiring, and when it does expire, the supplier will switch customers to a month-to-month variable rate contract, Green said.
Fixed rate contracts can save customers from ridiculous price hikes, but a fixed contract means customers are unable to take advantage of low rates – usually in the spring and fall, said Green.
Anyone who isn’t sure if they want to change suppliers can visit the Public Utility Commission’s website at http://www.papowerswitch.com.