The Watchdog: In the world of Texas electricity, free is not always free

TXU Free Weekends promises free electricity for 48 hours beginning at midnight Friday. But during the week, expect to pay 19 cents per kwh. Holy moly! It’s free, The Watchdog says, but it’s expensive when it’s not.

Can a company say something is free when it’s not? Can a company put the word free in the title of a product even when customers have to pay?

Or worse, can a company selling this product with the word free in the title actually charge the highest rates around?

As readers of The Dallas Morning News Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, that’s what’s happening now, according to some critics, with revolutionary new plans for free electricity on nights or weekends offered by TXU Energy and competitor Reliant Energy.

Some people tell The Watchdog they’re confused.


Check this out: TXU Free Nights promises free electricity every day from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. But what about the rest of the time? A residential customer gets slammed with an outrageous 18 cents per kilowatt-hour rate, about double what anybody else would pay on a normal price plan offered by most companies.

TXU Free Weekends promises free electricity for 48 hours beginning at midnight Friday. But during the week, expect to pay 19 cents per kwh. Holy moly! It’s free, but it’s expensive when it’s not.

Both plans are 18-month contracts with whopping early cancellation fees of $295 that aren’t even prorated. The only good thing — and this is important — is that TXU gives you 60 days to bail out of these programs without a cancellation charge if you’re not happy.

Reliant’s Free Weekends plan tacks on an extra four hours on Friday night, starting at 8 p.m., but the cost is almost 15 cents per kwh the rest of the time plus an extra $6.48 a month, which is part of Oncor’s delivery charge.

A difference is that TXU says it waives the Oncor charge during free hours, but Reliant doesn’t, meaning electricity used during free time is not entirely free. Reliant also gives its customers a free Nest Learning Thermostat, a $249 value.

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With 1.5 million customers and more than 40 percent of the market share, TXU deserves credit for not running in place and shaking up its offerings. Let’s detour for a moment and give TXU even bigger credit for its remarkable turnaround in customer service in the last year or so.

Four years ago, state regulators received more than 4,000 complaints from Texans about their electricity company. Asia-based customer service centers frustrated customers, as did an antiquated billing system left over from when TXU’s legacy company was the region’s utility monopoly. Many customers jumped to one of TXU’s 50 or so competitors.

Every year since, TXU has cut its complaint numbers in half. This year, TXU has fewer than 400 complaints before the state Public Utility Commission. That’s a truly remarkable turnaround.

Sadly, or maybe not, this comes at the same time TXU’s parent company, Dallas-based Energy Future Holdings, could be weeks away from filing what would be — with more than $40 billion in debt — one of the largest bankruptcies for a company not in the financial industry.

In the midst of this, TXU brags that almost 100,000 customers — 1 in 15 — have signed up for a “free” electricity program.

Dick Bunting of Bonham tells me he studied the plans and says “this makes my blood boil.” The title sounds good, he says, “but looking into it, you will find it is one of the worst deals out there in electric provider land.” He fears trusting seniors will sign up for the plan not knowing what they’re getting into.

TXU spokesman Michael Patterson says company reps are trained to ask a lot of questions before allowing customers to sign up for a program. “We want people to really understand and be happy with their selection,” he says.

One TXU competitor, Entrust Energy of Houston, created a truth-in-advertising campaign to show that the Entrust rates would save customers a thousand dollars or more in comparison to the free plans.

Entrust spokesman Kevin West said, “It’s interesting that TXU is pitching that this is so ‘free’ when in reality customers on these plans will pay a lot more in the non-free period.”

(Note that the PUC announced last week that Entrust agreed to pay $60,000 to settle an investigation into alleged violations of consumer protection rules.)

An analysis by the Texas Coalition for Affordable Power, which pushes for transparency in electricity pricing on behalf of member cities, also questions the plans, calling them “gimmick electric deals.”

“Let’s take free nights,” coalition analyst R.A. Dyer says. “If you work at night and sleep during the day, you’re still going to have to run your air conditioner during the day.”

He continues, “The main webpage of TXU’s pricing page doesn’t mention the 18-cent price for daytime hours. You have to go to the Energy Facts Label to find that.

“Also, these are 18-month, fixed-rate deals with a $295 early cancellation fee. Once you’ve figured out you can’t live the vampire lifestyle forever, or you figure out that the [kwh] rate is too high, you can’t walk away from this deal without paying a pretty hefty cancellation fee.”

TXU’s Patterson doesn’t agree that information is withheld from consumers. That’s not the way the new, improved TXU operates, he says.

“We always want to be the ones that are trustworthy and transparent in our pricing. We don’t hike fees. We’re straightforward, and we’re competitively priced.”

Bottom line: Texas retail electricity pricing is needlessly confusing. Every company has its own way of presenting its prices so numbers can’t easily be compared. Early cancellation fees are outrageous. Marketing is sometimes confusing, if not downright misleading. The fine print is everything.

And free? In the world of Texas electricity? Come on.

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Texas serviceman battles TXU before he leaves for war

An Army sergeant was in a rush. Before leaving for Afghanistan, he wanted to send Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation on a mission on his behalf. But I had to hurry, he said. He was leaving for war in a few days.

His problem? His electric bill with TXU Energy.

Here’s what he told me:

Sgt. Francis J. Jaeger of Haltom City, Texas switched from TXU to another company. He owed TXU money, so he set up a payment plan. He made his first payment.

Several weeks later, he received a bill from a collection agency. TXU jumped the gun. He was paying, but TXU passed the bill on anyway.

He called to complain. TXU told him that it was a mistake and that the utility would fix it. But that didn’t happen.

His credit rating dropped, and he began to get worried.

“I’m in the Army and have to have a security clearance, which I do,” he told me. “But because of my poor credit, I am in jeopardy of losing my clearance.”

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As readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, he kept calling TXU, and he kept getting told it was being fixed. But it never was. Months passed. “My credit is ruined,” he said. “I have continued to make payments on it to keep my part of the deal, but they refuse to help. I have talked to others who switched from TXU, and they tell me that they too have been wronged by TXU. It seems that they are punishing customers for leaving them.”

Watchdog Nation didn’t want the sergeant to worry about his credit score in the middle of a war zone. I immediately contacted TXU and explained the problem. At that point, TXU took action — and blame.

TXU spokesman Michael Patterson says, “There was a delay on our end in getting Mr. Jaeger his installment plan documentation such that he did not receive it in time to make his first payment.

“As a result, his installment plan was canceled. This triggered collection activities and credit bureau reporting.

“We are sorry for the inconvenience this has caused him, and we have notified the credit agencies and requested that they remove our report. This should not have a negative impact on his credit score once that process is complete.

“I realize this is frustrating for Mr. Jaeger, and we have improved our internal process to help ensure that does not happen to another customer.”

OK. That’s the TXU we-will-improve-our-internal-process story for this week. How about TXU’s external process?

Last week, a TXU door-to-door salesman knocked on my door. As always happens when any type of salesman knocks on The Watchdog’s door, in a matter of moments the salesman said things that were both stupid and wrong.

I asked the salesman about TXU’s iffy customer service. But the salesman had a ready answer. He said TXU is rated No. 1 in Texas for customer service.

I asked who did the rating. J.D. Power & Associates, he said.

I explained to him that according to public state records, TXU’s complaint level compared with other companies is neither best nor worst. TXU is in the middle when it comes to complaint ratings.

How do I know? Periodically, I check what I consider one of the most important state government documents available to Texans — semiannual scorecards of complaint levels of each electricity company. (Go to, click on “Go Directly to Offers” and then click on “Customer Complaint Statistics.”)

 After the salesman left, I checked the J.D. Power ratings. For 2010, TXU is shown at the bottom of a list of five major electricity providers, a rating well below the industry average.

When I asked the TXU spokesman about this, Patterson answered: “It appears the agent did not follow his training, and the messaging he provided was not consistent with his training. We will provide additional training to address this issue and will contact customers who purchased power from this agent so that we can verify whether they were told the same and validate their contract with TXU Energy.

“We are investigating this matter and depending on the results of our investigation, we will ensure they no longer sell TXU Energy products.”

OK, sounds serious. But here’s the catch. Patterson didn’t ask me any questions for an investigation. (Hint to TXU: Where do I live? When did the agent visit? What is his name?) That basic stuff would show that TXU is really doing what they say, instead of just pretending to fix things, like they pretended to fix the sergeant’s credit problem.

Never buy electricity from a door-to-door salesman. If you want to switch companies and save money, read my Guide to Electricity Savings here.

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How to fight your electric bill

How to fight your electric bill

People complain about high electricity bills. Often they’re ignored. Here’s how a prosecutor shows you how to take care of bad customer service reps who don’t care.

A Texas “power” story

Power plants across Texas fail. People have to cope with rolling blackouts. That makes Watchdog Nation long for the good old days when people complained about smart meters and their bills going up. Good old days? That would be before the great ice storms of 2011 in North Texas.

Although The Watchdog can’t solve the rolling blackouts, we will continue to shine a light on the Texas electricity system.

Customer service is questionable

Today’s victims, er, electricity customers: John and Mary Brasher of Wichita Falls. John Brasher is a 25-year veteran prosecutor in the Wichita County district attorney’s office who handles appeals. After his smart meter was installed, his next bill came in four times higher than the previous month’s. So the couple launched an appeal with TXU Energy.

As readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, Mary Brasher called customer service. She got no help. “I knew I was talking to someone overseas. His phrases didn’t sound right. I felt like he was reading me a canned answer. He kept repeating the same phrases over and over,” she said.

Next, the couple wrote TXU. They even diagnosed their own problem, telling TXU that their old meter reading was most likely inaccurate.

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Difficulty communicating

Here are excerpts from their ensuing correspondence.

TXU: “Dear Mr. Brasher … the meter was accurately read.”

Brasher: “Did you even read my last email? … Where is the old meter? Can it be tested?”

TXU: “All bill dates and due amounts are continuing as normal.”

Brasher: “You are absolutely wrong. … That is crazy, and I do not appreciate your canned answer one bit. I am notifying the Texas Public Utility Commission. Additionally, I would appreciate a chance to review and read the old meter myself. I am sure you have it stored some place. I expect to receive a real answer from you, not a canned answer.”

You can be an electricity company prosecutor, too

That didn’t happen, so John Brasher filed a complaint with the PUC: “TXU will provide us no information about whether the ‘old’ meter can be located and read. … We would like a reasonable explanation, rather than the arrogant and condescending responses we have been given by TXU.”

The prosecutor continues, “If, in fact, the old meter can no longer be read merely because it has been removed, then that is a loophole that needs to be closed. Otherwise, TXU can claim any electrical usage it wants to without the consumer having any recourse. We can only assume that this is in fact what TXU is doing, since it will not provide any answers to us.”

His PUC complaint got everyone’s attention, and finally the facts came out.

Who is to blame?

Oncor Electric Delivery says its reader misread the Brashers’ meter two weeks before the old meter was swapped for the smart meter. Oncor realized the error and notified TXU. But TXU didn’t tell the Brashers.

Turns out the old meters are stored in a warehouse, and photographs are taken showing the final reading. Until PUC got involved, though, nobody bothered to tell the Brashers that. “Seems to be a straightforward question,” Mary Brasher said.

TXU spokesman Michael Patterson accepts blame: “Obviously, we fell a little short. … There was a disconnect here, and I know that’s frustrating to the customer.” (Yes, he said “disconnect.”)

“The rep that responded didn’t connect the dots that maybe there was an issue when they changed the meter.”

TXU is tracking the error, he says, and spreading the word among its personnel about what went wrong. As for taking the complaint to the PUC, he adds, “We certainly don’t want that for a number of reasons.”

The Brashers’ bill is now reconciled. But the couple and TXU aren’t. The Brashers say they’re switching electricity companies.

There’s good news here. If part of the problem is, in fact, canned answers from overseas customer service reps who don’t always understand the complexities of the company they serve, TXU offers a better solution: The company has announced that it is adding new call centers in Abilene and Lubbock and expanding a call center in Irving. The moves are supposed to create and save 500 jobs.

Where are the remaining TXU customer service jobs?

“We don’t disclose specific numbers for our customer contact centers, but with this reconfiguration, the company will have a 70 percent domestic, 30 percent Latin America mix,” Patterson said.

Watchdog Nation has previously reported that TXU call centers were situated in Bangalore, India; Krakow, Poland; and the Philippines.

Those overseas outposts are gone — replaced, Patterson says, by what TXU calls “near-shore operations.” These, he said, are “in Spanish-speaking regions, and they consistently provide us with cost-effective and high-quality service for our customers.”

The Brashers say they don’t care who answers the phone as long as they get correct and honest answers.

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Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is available in hardcover, as a CD audio book, ebook and hey, what else do you need. Visit our store. Now revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

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Here’s the latest on electricity smart meters

Americans are confused and worried about the installation of smart electric meters. Some believe the meters result in higher bills. In North Texas, where Watchdog Nation founder Dave Lieber lives, Oncor Electric Delivery denies that.

The Watchdog is on the case. Here’s the latest.

Dave Lieber of explores the controversy over smart meters.

Remember that Oncor maintains the power lines and installs the new meters. Your electricity provider handles your billing.

Installation update

Almost 1 million new meters have been installed in Oncor’s service area. That’s about one-third of the more than 3 million residences and businesses that will receive them by 2013, the Public Utility Commission of Texas says.

The PUC hired a company to test the meters, and that continues. So far, 1,400 meters have been tested “and all were found to be accurate,” according to the PUC.

Oncor has acknowledged that 1,800 customers’ meter readings were in error, but the company blames human error during conversion to the new meters. It says the meters themselves are fine.

Meanwhile, in California, Pacific Gas and Electric has admitted that there were 43,000 cases in which smart meters had problems, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

“The utility found 23,000 meters that were installed improperly, 11,376 that failed to retain consumer usage information and 9,000 that had trouble connecting with the wireless network,” the paper reported. The utility said that only “a few” customers received inaccurate bills.

Turns out that the meters that were installed incorrectly were gas meters and that the “vast majority” of those customers got inaccurate bills, the paper reported.

California state officials, like those in Texas, continue investigating.

Installation difficulties

Thanks to Melodi and George Faris of Fort Worth for teaching me two important facts about smart-meter installations.

First, Oncor can enter your back yard to install the meters without your permission.

Second, during the installation, the power to your home will go off for several minutes.

Melodi Faris told me how she watched an Oncor installer climb over their wrought iron gate, then push a button that opened the gate to her driveway. When Melodi Faris confronted the installer, he denied climbing the fence. He said he reached through the gate and pushed the button. She measured the distance and told me that’s not possible.

After the power went off, the family’s phones went dead. Permanently.

They filed a claim with Oncor for the replacement cost, but it was denied. Oncor stated in a letter that it is not responsible for “voltage fluctuations or electrical interruptions.”

An Oncor spokeswoman told me that proper installation procedures were followed. Oncor left a notice on the front door that it would be doing work, and the installer knocked before entering the property. No one answered.

As for jumping the fence, she said, “In normal circumstances, he would use a ladder.”

Power goes off “no more than a minute or two,” she said.

“Every person should have protection for their appliances,” she added. “Surge protectors. That’s what we recommend.”

Website problems

A new website — — is supposed to let customers with smart meters manage electric usage.

Greg McKinney of Arlington, who works on websites for a bank, says he cannot get the site to work for the new smart meter at his home.

“It’s as though they didn’t test the test before rolling it out,” he says.

He wrote to me: “Dave, I don’t know what you can do here, but it’s frustrating that with electricity deregulation, I’m supposed to educate myself about electricity usage. And the very tools that the PUC puts out there” don’t work.

The PUC tells me the site is operated by Oncor and other transmission and distribution utilities. Users must have smart meters for about a month or two before the site will work.

So far, 2,000 electric customers have enrolled, the PUC reports.

Doing the right thing

Donald Martin of Fort Worth is trying to do the right thing. He says he tallies his kilowatt-hour usage by looking at his smart meter every day.

“When I received my last bill, I compared their current meter reading to my recorded reading,” he wrote. “Their reading was 37 kWh more than my observation.”

He called TXU Energy, his retail provider, but says he couldn’t communicate with the rep and got frustrated.

The Watchdog contacted TXU. A spokeswoman listened to the tapes of his calls.

“He was really upset ….,” she told me. “He did not let us help him.”

Meanwhile, an Oncor spokeswoman told me that Martin’s problem was that his bill stated his meter was read on May 12, but the actual reading occurred on May 13, hence the difference in usage.

“We have two business days to get in there around that time to actually read the meter,” she said. “We read it the next day. Sometimes that happens. We try to stick to the schedule. We read so many meters in a day that this might happen.”

She also taught me — and you — a new trick to get better service from Oncor. Each city has an Oncor community manager. The managers’ phone numbers and e-mail addresses are listed on Oncor’s website.

Here’s how to find it: Go to and look for the Community tab on the upper-right corner. On the drop-down menu click on Community and Customer Relations. On the left side, click on Local Contacts, then find your city and the local area manager.

“That’s something you can do if you don’t feel satisfied,” the Oncor spokeswoman says.


Read Dave Lieber’s previous post about how Smart meters are becoming urban legends.

Read an earlier Dave Lieber post about how Oncor doesn’t have a sufficient emergency alert system for its customers.

Read the Dave Lieber post about how to fight your electric company.


Read Texas PUC Chairman Barry Smitherman’s presentation to a Texas legislative committee in May 2010 here.

The latest PUC news release about independent smart meter testing is here.

Here is the complete rule for Texans about smart meters from the PUC.

This is the smart meter website that the state offers Texans to measure their usage. This is the PUC announcement about the site.


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

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation book won two national awards for social change.

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

Do electricity regulators really regulate?

Watchdog Nation had a theory: Some electricity companies, despite Photo courtesy of centralillinoisproud.comhorrendous customer service, are getting away with it. But is the theory true?

Based on the hundreds of letters we receive each year at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram from people complaining about their electricity bills, we wondered what happened to the thousands of complaints about electricity companies that go to the Public Utility Commission of Texas each year.

Do the companies get penalized?

As The Watchdog columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, I conducted a study. Using the open-records law, we requested the total complaints from customers of three companies that had severe difficulties in the past two years – Amigo Energy, TXU Energy and Direct Energy. We studied the number of complaints, the number that were investigated and what action was taken against any offenders.

The findings are described in detail in Sunday’s Fort Worth Star-Telegram (7/12/09) here. And you can have the reprint of our Guide to Shopping for Electric Rates – requested already by thousands of people.

In summary, the best way to counter an electric company (or any company for that matter) that harms you is to complain, complain and complain. By forcing up complaint numbers, the trend lines show a problem, thereby making the regulators more likely to take strong action.

By the way, colleague Jack Z. Smith tells a much-needed story about how the elderly, especially, can shop for lower rates here.