It pays to switch power plans, but few Houstonians do

By: L.M. Sixel |

Texas consumers can save hundreds of dollars each year by shopping for electricity, but most don’t seek out better deals, overwhelmed by the number and complexity of power plans on the state’s Power to Choose website, wary of fine print in too-good-to-be true offers, or just too busy to spend time calculating whether free nights and weekends offset the higher rates they pay during the week.

In the Houston area, only 16 percent of CenterPoint Energy’s 2.4 million residential customers — or about one in six — switched their electricity providers over the past year, according to the state’s grid manager, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. Among the 3.5 million customers of the state’s largest electric distribution utility, Oncor of Dallas, just 13 percent — only one in eight — signed up with a new retail power company in the last 12 months.

Ultimately, analysts said, this means that the vast majority of customers are not reaping the benefits of electricity deregulation, which promised that more competition would mean healthy savings. One analyst estimates that consumers are leaving about $2 billion a year on the table, which is likely flowing to the bottom lines of retail electricity companies.

NRG Energy, the state’s biggest seller of electricity, earned nearly $1 billion in the first quarter from its retail operations, which include the companies Reliant, Green Mountain Energy, Pennywise Power and Cirro Energy, according to it financial filings. Retail was the only profitable segment for the power company

“The whole business model of the industry is to get people in on the promotional rates and then jack up their rate when the promotional rates end,” said Trent Crow, a former JP Morgan energy trader and founder of Real Simple Energy, a website that helps consumers find low-cost electricity plans. “I don’t think people realize how much they are overpaying.”

Business specialists say that retail electricity companies follow a model used in other mature industries, such as banking, cell phone services and cable television, where the market is saturated and the main way to grow is by poaching customers from competitors. In all these industries, companies use cut-rate promotional offers to win customers and then hope inertia sets in once promotions expire and prices increase.

Partha Krishnamurthy, a marketing professor at the University of Houston, said he suspects that many people may be unaware they’re paying more than they need to for electricity, putting their bills on autopay and forgetting about the rates they pay. Most people don’t go to the trouble of changing banks, jobs or their electricity providers, for that matter, unless there are problems.

“Why go through it when you don’t have to?” he asked.

That’s what Josh Burdick thinks when looks around for electricity deals on Power to Choose for his 1,400 square foot West University condo. But Burdick, 45, an information technology project manager for an oil company in Houston, figured that he wouldn’t end up saving that much. He signed up with Reliant 11 years ago and has never left, paying anywhere from $120 to $150 a month during the summer. He is not even on a plan, instead paying month-to-month market rates, which typically cost more than longer term retail contracts.

“It seems to be a lot of aggravation without much benefit,” said Burdick.

Consumers were promised cheaper power when Texas deregulated its electricity markets in 2002 at the urging of big industrial users and power companies. Average retail prices have declined by more than 60 percent since 2001, although much of that decline is due to the plunge in natural gas prices that followed advances in shale drilling and consequently wholesale power prices. Proponents of deregulation argue that they still have choices that can save them money.

But in Houston, where there are 52 companies on Power to Choose each offering several different power plans, there might be too many choices. Economists have found that when confronted with a large number of choices, most people tend to do nothing. In one well-known behavioral economics experiment, researchers set out six samples of fruit jams at a grocery store, enticing 30 percent of shoppers to buy the product. But when they increased the number of samples to 24, only 3 percent of shoppers made a purchase.

That phenomenon has played out in Texas electricity markets, where few customers are willing to navigate the maze of power plans in the hope of shaving a few cents per kilowatt hour from their electric rates, according to the Texas Coalition for Affordable Power which buys electricity on behalf of municipal governments in Texas. As result, customers in regulated markets such as San Antonio and Austin on average pay less for electricity than those in deregulated markets like Houston, according to the coalition.

The Public Utility Commission of Texas has recently raised concerns about how retailers advertise their products on Power to Choose, putting them on notice that they need to make the offers easier to understand or regulators will take action to make electricity pricing more transparent.

Electricity retailers, meanwhile, are working hard to keep existing customers. Before the last contract ends, retailers contact their customers with new rate offers. It costs up to $250 to land a new customer, which includes marketing and costs associated with signing them up and billing them, energy experts say.

NRG won’t reveal how many customers it gains or loses each month. But company officials say that most of the comings and goings each month stem from people who move from one home to another rather than people who just switch providers.

“We want to make sure we’re meeting their needs so they don’t leave,” said Elizabeth Killinger, president of Reliant and NRG Retail.

One way NRG has expanded its customer base — it has about 30 percent of the retail electricity market in Texas compared to about 20 percent a decade ago —is by putting employees into retail settings such as grocery stores and discount stores to meet with consumers about the company’s electricity plan offerings. The face-to-face interactions have helped the company explain the range of current offerings, said Killinger. NRG also emphasizes the importance of buying power from a company with enough financial heft that it will be around in the future.

But more consumers are catching on that electricity is a commodity, said Andrew Barth, managing partner of CSD Energy Advisors in Houston which consults with industrial and commercial power users on electricity buying. They’re learning that their lights won’t flicker if they sign up with one provider versus another.

In the end, he said, the only real difference between the companies is their prices.

It pays to switch power plans, but few Houstonians do