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

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 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 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

– 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.