How to fight the electric company

Powerless against the power company

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Dave Lieber column looking at Oncor Electric

My Open Letter to Oncor Electric Delivery:

Celeste Bird says she cannot communicate successfully with anyone at Oncor Electric Delivery about the repeated power outages in her Grapevine, Texas neighborhood.

Even before the recent cold weather and heavy snow made the problem worse, she says, the power regularly went out for at least half the neighbors on her street.

“You have to work hard to even get a person at Oncor, and they won’t tell you anything,” Bird said. When she does reach someone, she says, she gets a “from-the-book answer saying maybe next time they will check into it.”

Many complained this month that they couldn’t get information from Oncor about when power would be restored after snow and wind caused half a million residences and businesses to go without electricity, some for an extended period.

These days, with emerging technologies such as Facebook and Twitter, it’s easier than ever to communicate with customers — if you want to. So on behalf of Bird, her neighbors and many others, The Watchdog last week wrote an open letter:

Dear Oncor,

What do you do now to communicate with thousands of frustrated customers who call in with complaints, specifically about power outages and also recent high bills?

From my mail, it appears that these recent weeks are among the most difficult times for Oncor in recent years. I hear about more complaints which you are receiving than ever more. More requests for meter re-reads, questions about smart meters, theories of no-show meter readers and inaccurate meters.

I sense a lot of frustration among your customers. They say it’s difficult to get information from you. They wonder, because they are dealing with an automated phone system, if complaints are received properly. They don’t like the lack of human contact, the inability to give feedback. They don’t like NOT knowing if a power restoration crew is scheduled, when it will come, when power could come back on.

The public wants you to be more accessible, more transparent and more available to help them in their times of need. It seems like you aren’t using technology as best you could. In this age of fast-moving communication, it would seem that Oncor could do more than use automated phone lines to take information.

I wonder why you don’t make this information available on a Web site so we can check the latest. This, as you know, is the most basic form of easily distributed rapid information — for free — and customers are clamoring for it.

I received calls from people who wanted to know how they could find out if their power would be turned on? What do I tell them?

I can’t think of another product we buy each month that we understand less about how you bill and whether the price and quantity are correct. People are supposed to trust your systems and equipment. Yet people feel a loss of power and control of their lives when it comes to electrical power.

The Watchdog

Dave Lieber column looking at Oncor Electric

Oncor spokeswoman Carol Peters responded.

She checked Oncor records and confirmed that Bird has complained many times, even to the Public Utility Commission of Texas. But, she said, “there’s no way for us to tell a customer when their power is going to be turned on.”

The great snowstorm of 2010 was Oncor’s worst winter storm ever. Complaints were up, but that was not unexpected, she said.

Rather than dwell on Oncor’s recent unpleasantness, Peters wanted to focus on the future. She promised that greater transparency is coming to Texas’ largest electricity transmission company.

A new Web site is about to be unveiled by the state, working with the large transmission companies, both she and a PUC spokesman told me. Customers will be able to log on and retrieve more detailed information about their electricity usage and bills.

When is this coming?

“It should be announced fairly soon, but it will be the first step toward total visibility on your electric bill,” Peters said. “It’s almost finished.”

The second part of the transparency movement, she said, is the installation of smart meters, scheduled for completion by 2012.

When smart meters are installed, Peters said, customers won’t have to call utilities to report outages. Utilities will already know because a smart meter sends back usage information every 15 minutes.

“This is the brave new world we are heading for,” Peters said. “This is a transformative period for Oncor.”

Until the smart system is installed and while more old-fashioned methods are used, Peters said Oncor is interested in doing “anything we can to improve communication before we deploy” the new meters.

Celeste Bird says she and her Grapevine neighbors can’t wait that long, adding, “Maybe it’s time for some competition if the one choice we have for service can’t provide the type of service we pay for.”

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Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

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Comments

  1. Dona Garrett says:

    I too have experienced more frequent outages and for longer periods of time (at least 12 in the last 9 months with some lasting days and some for hours on end).

    Future Energy Holdings/TXU/Oncor is in very serious financial trouble after the biggest private equity buy out in history. They were betting on rising gas prices and do not have the resources to ride out this bad economy. Now we are having to pay for this bad investment with with terrible service and constant blackouts. They are NOT investing in the infastructure because they are trying to protect in their bottom line.

    It is only going to get worse. I predict third world conditions soon.

    Down with the greedy beancounters!

  2. Good points Dona. They ended up in over their head.

  3. DJ Ragsdale says:

    I know this is an old blog post, but I just started searching online again for a way to file complaints about Oncor. We've lived in Trophy Club since 2007 and we've experienced at least 30-40 outages since then. An outage during storms or harsh weather I would totally expect, but we lose power around 1-2am on perfectly cool calm days which last until 5-6am. Today our power just went out again during the day and it's been off for 5 hours already. It's a beautiful day and no reason at all. Our last power outage was 3 weeks ago during a calm night as well. It's not the whole neighborhood but only about 4 streets of houses.

    It also seems that our lines are underground so weather definitely can't be the issue.

    I don't know where to start to complain as I can never get anyone on the phone….

  4. Carlos Leal says:

    This seems to be one of the few place to rant about Oncor's unreliability so in hopes of motivating the Star-Telegram staff to investigate something not very sexy, but very necessary, I'll post my thoughts on this subject here.

    After living in 7 Texas cities, in both rural and urban settings, and in New Mexico, Arizona, & So. Cal; my 20 year residence by Benbrook Lake has been ideal except for electricity reliability. Even counting two years in a war zone, the power reliability here has been the worst I've ever experienced.

    Unfortunately, much of this is man-made. Oncor has repeatedly made decisions favoring their bottom line rather than their mandate of providing customers with reliable power transmission.

    I few points I wish they'd disprove:

    1) Since deregulation, and further exacerbated by the leveraged buyout, the downsizing of the company's workforce in favor of filling-in-the-gaps with third-party contractors has resulted in lower service levels.
    2.) Outage resolution times have increased even more in the last several years due to troubleshooters' overtime having been effectively eliminated.
    3.) An outage after dark or on weekends is almost certain to take longer due to Oncor's unwillingness to spend on overtime labor hours.
    4.) Aggravating points 2 & 3 is the company's decision to protect their equipment at their customers expense by changing the sensitivity of their transformer fuses resulting in more customer service interruptions. (It would be nice to compare their fuse values with the rest of the industry)
    5.) Friday night's (5/4/12) little storms resulted in a 12 hour outage for me. This and my April 3rd outage were both due to blown fuses.

    Imagine what the next real widespread outage will mean to the DFW area.

    To further bring reality to this unnecessary situation, consider the USDA's recommendation on what foods to keep after your refrigerator was forced to go above 40 degrees for two hours or more. http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/refridg_food.html

    Unfortunately, this is a (barely) regulated monopoly and our only viable recourse seems to be moving out of their service area.

  5. Carlos, Thanks for your note. I am actually working with a Benbrook neighborhood now to correct Oncor outage problems. I wonder if you live in the same neighborhood.