When your electric company doesn’t tell you what’s happening

After he saw my report on Oncor Electric Delivery’s poor outage information system a week ago, reader Doug Edwards of Dallas summarized my findings better in 18 words than I did in a thousand.

“It looks like you got the brush off from Oncor everybody else is. They always say `Tomorrow, Tomorrow …’ ” was the message he sent via my Twitter feed.

He’s right.

I had asked Oncor why the company couldn’t do better at providing power outage information to the public, especially during a major storm.

This is a Dave Lieber report for WatchdogNation.com.

But what happened? I got steered into an explanation about how everything will be better in two or three years because we’ll have smart meters.

So last week, I tried again. I pressed Oncor harder when I previewed its new smart meter exhibit, soon to be visiting a county fair near you.

Because North Texas gets its share of severe weather, it’s hard to understand why Oncor won’t do a better job of informing the public when neighborhoods are dark, when crews are working to restore power and when it’s finally restored.

Oncor doesn’t offer that service. That also means that the news media can’t report the latest information to a wider public.

Yet last week I found two electricity transmission companies similar to Oncor that do tell their customers what is happening during bad weather in modern, quick and efficient ways.

AEP Texas, which serves a giant swath of West Texas, presents on its Web site a real-time listing and accompanying color map — broken down by ZIP code — that shows how many customers have lost power.

The information comes from telephone complaints by customers, which are then transferred to the Web site, spokesman Larry Jones said. The site is updated every few minutes. Parent company American Electric Power offers real-time outage alerts in the 11 states it serves.

In Florida, Kissimmee Utility Authority created an outage alert system five years ago that sends text alerts or e-mails to anyone who signs up, giving the number of affected customers by ZIP code. Updates give customers an idea of how quickly the problem is being fixed.

Spokesman Chris Gent says the authority’s system preceded Twitter, which was developed a year later. Now the authority offers both a Twitter feed and its original system to customers.

The service is inexpensive, he said, because it was designed in-house and is run by staff.

The authority is experimenting with GPS devices on work trucks so that information can eventually be used, too.

Several readers called and questioned my plea for a strong Internet alert system for Oncor customers. They said they wouldn’t have electricity to access a Web site.

Remember that hand-held phones and laptops are often battery-powered. Friends and relatives can relay information to you from elsewhere. The news media uses the information. And all of this is important for families that have evacuated and want to learn when they can return.

Does Oncor have any plans to offer an outage alert system?

At the smart-meter exhibit in Lancaster, spokeswoman Jeamy Molina answered, “We’re just not at a place where that can be done right now. It goes back to the grid with the whole outage system. We know when there are widespread outages. We know where that is. It goes back to our restoration process and how it works.

“We understand that there are places that Oncor can improve on its customer service and dealing with these kinds of things. And of course, these will be things that we’ll take into account when we start seeing what we could have done better before the next storm. So that will be something that will come up. But right now, Oncor is not at that place.”

What about the near future?

“It’s stuff that will be talked about, of course,” she continued. “We’ll take this back to our team. We have to review steps about what could be done.”

As my Twitter pal sang in his tweet: “Tomorrow, Tomorrow …”

No system’s perfect

OK, I have a smart-meter story for you. Those are the 21st-century meters that connect directly to the electric company. You can monitor your power usage and set your smart appliances to run at off-peak times. Most Texas electric customers will have one in a few years.

Oncor took a lot of, uh, heat from customers in recent weeks in Killeen and Temple. Soon after their smart meters were installed, their bills jumped. But Oncor says that the increase was due to the cold weather and that it tested about 500 meters and all were accurate.

Even though smart meters are designed to eliminate humans and our errors, there is still that possibility. When an old meter is removed, the final reading is recorded by — gasp — a human.

And wouldn’t you know it? Sometimes people make mistakes. About a dozen so far when it comes to smart-meter conversions, Oncor says.

There’s this one fellow who had a smart meter installed nine months ago at his home in the Austin area (not served by Oncor).

When he received the first bill afterward, he recalls, “It looked like they overcharged me 1,000 kilowatts.”

He called Austin Energy to complain. “The meter reader, in closing out, put the decimal point in the wrong place,” he says. “I was charged an extra 1,000 kwh. So there’s that potential element for human error.”

And who is this fellow who was done wrong?

His name is Terry Hadley.

His job?

He’s the spokesman for the Public Utility Commission of Texas.

If it can happen to him …

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

Are your Texas electricity bills too high? Here’s a solution…

The battle cry for residents in a seniors community in Fort Worth, Texas goes like this:

“I’m gettin’ beat ’cause I want to use some heat!”

Residents tried to figure out why their electric bills have doubled in the past few months.

Last week, they called a meeting and invited me. They showed me their bills, almost all of them from TXU Energy. They had a lot of theories about what went wrong — meters not read properly, for example.

After I bit, as I first reported in the Jan. 31, 2010 Dave Lieber column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, I gave them my initial expert opinion.

It was bitterly cold in late December. Of course bills go up.

But then I dug deeper into their cases, looking at their bills and asking each resident two crucial questions:

What kilowatt-per-hour rate do you pay?

When does your contract expire?

Almost nobody knew the answers. Their problem, it seems, is much worse than high winter bills. Most likely, these residents are paying more than necessary because they haven’t shopped around for electricity. Unfortunately, many Texans still don’t know how to do that.

We worked on their cases, and in the end, I hope I solved their problem. Best of all, my solution may work for you, too. But before we get to that, let’s listen to a few of the residents:

Martha Beaman: “My bill was $28 in November. Then, in December, it was $256. And for January, it was $233. I am never at home. I work. This is stressful because my wages haven’t gone up as the bill goes up. I have to calculate every penny I earn because my job has been cut back on hours this month. I’m struggling.”

Shirley Stockton: “I knew the cold weather was coming and cranked my heater down to 65. I turned my water heater off through the cold snap, and the bill still went from $36 to $96. I only turn my water heater on every few days when I need it.” (When she called to tell a TXU rep that, she says the rep told her that hot water “is a privilege.”)

Debbie Wilson: Her bill jumped from $78 to $176 to $272: “After I got the high bill for December, I cut my thermostat to 67. I use oxygen at night, so I have to have enough electricity to pay for that. I’d rather go cold than not have my air at night.”

Anita Mayfield: Her bill went from $64 to $149. “I’m getting tired of cooking on a microwave. I wear sweats all the time. I have the thermostat turned down to 60 degrees. I wash in cold water. When you live on a fixed income, you can’t afford this. You don’t know where you are going to pay these extras from.”

Charlie Berry: His bill went from $40 to $176 to $227. “At this rate, by the time I get the next bill, I’m going to have to apply for assistance from the U.S. government just to pay my electric bill.”

Steve Kerr: “During the cold snap I was out of town for three weeks with the heating system turned off.” His bill went from $90 to $146 to $236. He is skeptical about whether the meter was read. “Whether or not it was read — that’s the $64,000 question,” he says.

Oncor spokeswoman Carol Peters said later that the bills are higher because this has been the second-coldest winter in the past two decades. “There’s a 30 percent increase in the heating requirements over last year,” she said. Oncor delivers the electricity through the lines and hires the meter readers. TXU is the residents’ retail provider by their choice.

TXU spokeswoman Sophia Stoller looked at 13 cases of Providence Village residents provided by The Watchdog. All but one seemed accurate, she said. In the questionable case, the initial bill looked too low.

TXU offers several ways for customers to get help with their bills, including a 10 percent discount as part of the Low Income Discount Plan. But you have to ask. TXU Energy Aid helps customers who say they have a hardship, such as loss of job or illness.

When I looked at the residents’ bills, I found that many are paying as much as 13, 14 or 15 cents per kilowatt-hour.

However, last week, the state-run PowertoChoose.org Web site showed the lowest prices I’ve seen — 8.5 cents per kilowatt-hour.

So the quickest way to lower your electric bill is not to turn down a thermostat or turn off a water heater but to learn when your contract expires and shop for a better deal. If there’s a cancellation fee, it will be more than covered in a few months by cutting a 15-cent rate almost in half.

As proof, one Providence Village resident said she paid $250 to cancel her contract before it expired so she could switch to Green Mountain Energy. Her neighbors sighed when Helen Nash reported that her recent bill was only $93.

If you’re not sure about the best way to shop around, I’ve got you covered. I’ve distributed tens of thousands of free copies of my guide showing how to get the best buy in Texas electricity. You can find it by clicking here on “Dave Lieber Guide to Saving on Your Electricity Bill.”

You can also e-mail me at watchdog@star-telegram.com or request a copy at Dave Lieber, Star-Telegram, P.O. Box 1870, Fort Worth, TX 76101.

What to do If you need help on your electric bill, call 211.

Customers who receive food stamps or Medicaid may qualify for the Lite Up Texas discount or other assistance.

Ask your electric company whether it offers assistance. Also ask to pay a big bill over several months, allowed under law.

On Feb. 3, 2010, Tarrant County Human Services will take applications from those who are retired or on disability and receive no other income. Call 817-531-5620 on Wednesday and ask for an appointment. Only 500 appointments will be scheduled.

Source: Tarrant County Human Services

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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

Look at these trees! Video and pix. Wrath of the power company.

Look at this tree.

Bob P.  from Arlington, Texas sent me this photo of his backyard tree, cut by Oncor Electric Delivery’s tree-pruning company.

The tree pruners "probably laughed about it all day long," the angry homeowner says.

The tree pruners "probably laughed about it all day long," the angry homeowner says.

“Only someone with a sick sense of humor would ‘prune’ a tree the way the one in my backyard was cut,” he says. “The Oncor contractor and the rest of his team probably laughed about it all day long. It would have been merciful to cut the entire tree to the ground.”

For years, I’ve received heart-breaking letters from folks whose trees are butchered by Oncor Electric Delivery, which serves one-third of Texas. Oncor owns the lines and transformers that the retail electricity providers offer homeowners and businesses.

Oncor tree trim by Rodger Mallison for Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Oncor tree trim by Rodger Mallison for Fort Worth Star-Telegram

As I shared in the Nov. 29, 2009 Dave Lieber column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Oncor has operated an ineffective, poorly-managed, non-communicative and disorganized tree-trimming program.

Now along comes Grapevine Mayor William D. Tate.

Tate is one of America’s finest mayors, and his town, not surprisingly, is the best little town in Texas.

This is one more reason he gets the title.

Tate is an old-fashioned, handshake mayor. He could easily have been a U.S. Marshall a hundred years ago. Now he’s taken Grapevine to the highest heights. And he’s taking on Oncor for the butchering of hundreds of trees in the best little town in Texas.

“I feel like The Watchdog on this,” he told me.

Tate is a watchdog that won’t let go.

Grapevine Mayor William D. Tate/Courtesy Mike Lewis Photography

Grapevine Mayor William D. Tate/Courtesy Mike Lewis Photography

Turns out Oncor has messed up trees in other area towns, too. Homeowners complain that when they call for information about tree trimmings on their property, they can’t get any information. When the trimmers arrive, they often don’t speak English.

Tate complained to the Public Utility Commission. He said that got their attention. And it did.

I recently attended a summit with Tate, a few other mayors and top officials of Oncor.

Oncor is overhauling its tree trimming program.

The most important part is the addition of mandatory “customer sensitivity” classes for supervisors of the five tree trimming companies used by Oncor.

Oncor has also created a toll-free number (1-800-518-2380) for homeowners who have questions when tags are placed on their door. Usually, a tag means a tree trimming crew may come in five days or so to trim away from electricity lines.

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See for yourself. In this brief video by Dave Lieber, I show you some examples of Oncor’s tree trimming work in Grapevine.

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More information

oncor 1Visit www.oncor.com/trees.

– State law prohibits residents from trimming trees near power lines.

– Oncor urges homeowners to use Oncor-sent trimmers or hire their own qualified trimmers.

– Homeowners can also pay to bury lines underground.

– Homeowners should avoid planting spreading trees within 50 feet of power lines.

– Read Texas law here about overhead power lines.

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Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. His book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, won two national book awards in 2009 for social change.