Thursday, June 5, 2014

A visit from the con men

About five minutes ago, two con artists rang my doorbell.

Oh, they didn't look like con artists, of course; con artists never do (at least not successful ones). No, these were two nice-looking young people, dressed in what was obviously some sort of uniform but not obviously that of any particular company, and their opening line was, "Hi there, ma'am, we're from the power company." Now, as it happens, I've heard this line before, both over the phone and in person, which is how I knew immediately that they were not from my power company, PSE&G, but rather from a different power company that they were hoping to persuade me to switch to.

However, the rest of their spiel, I must admit, was new to me. Instead of saying, "Under the Electric Choice program, you are entitled to a discount of blah, blah, blah," like most of these companies do, they said, "We're here because we've been getting calls from all your neighbors about why their bills are so high, so we just want you to take a look at your bill and make sure it doesn't have this 'RSG' code at the top. If it does, that means you're being double-charged." It almost sounded legitimate—so much that I might have actually gone to check my bill if I hadn't known that these people were definitely not from PSE&G and were deliberately trying to make me think they were. So instead, I said, "OK, I will do that, thanks," and shut the door on the guy as he was trying to say, "Well, that's what I'm here for, ma'am...." Through the door, I heard them laughing about this idiot customer who didn't even realize what she was supposed to do, and I was a little bit annoyed about it, but not nearly as annoyed as I would have been if I'd been a real idiot and wound up being tricked into switching power providers without knowing that's what I was doing.

The thing is, if this other company actually did have lower rates than PSE&G, and if they had simply come to my door and simply told me that—"Hi, we're from a power provider called IDT, and we're prepared to offer you a lower rate than what you're currently paying with PSE&G"—I would have been perfectly willing to hear them out. But they didn't do that; instead, they tried to convince me that they were actually from PSE&G, and that any deal I signed with them would not involve switching providers. In other words, they tried to con me. And frankly, I don't want to deal with any company that behaves that way, no matter how good its rates are. (Besides, if their rates actually are better than PSE&G's, why do they need to con people to get them to sign on?)

Now, you might wonder why, if I'm such a frugal individual, I haven't already looked into the possibility of saving money by switching to a different power provider. Well, there are two answers. First, New Jersey actually has two separate and, as far as I can tell, completely unrelated power choice programs. There's the Electric Choice program that these alternative providers are always invoking in their spiels, and there's also the Clean Power Choice program, under which you can sign up to buy renewable energy from one of three companies. The catch with this one is, we don't buy our power directly from the renewable energy provider and pay their rate; instead, we continue to buy it from PSE&G, and they commit to buying however many kilowatt-hours of power we use from the renewable energy provider. Then they charge us for power supply at their regular rate, plus a surcharge for buying it from the green power provider. So even if it's actually cheaper to generate power entirely from wind than from the blend of nukes, fossil fuels, and a little bit of renewable energy that PSE&G uses, we are, apparently, legally required to pay extra for the privilege of buying those kilowatt-hours of wind energy. But if renewable energy is what we want, then short of installing our own solar panels, buying it at secondhand via PSE&G is the only way to get it. So switching suppliers to save money would mean that we lose our renewable power.

Even if we were willing to make that sacrifice, however, it doesn't look like we'd actually save any money. I just checked our latest bill from PSE&G, and it says that the rate we paid last month for electricity supply (not distribution, a separate charge that we'll always pay to PSE&G no matter who generates the power) was 11.2 cents for the first 49 kilowatt-hours and 11.1 cents for the next 131. By contrast, this list of other energy suppliers in PSE&G's service area shows that the lowest available rate they can offer is 11.8 cents. In other words, all these folks who show up at our door or call us on the phone offering to help us save money on our electric bill are actually trying to get us to pay more money to buy our electricity from them. Which makes them exactly what I said they were: con artists.

The state Assembly is currently considering a bill that would make it easier for alternative power providers to compete in the marketplace. Personally, I'd prefer a bill that lets consumers like us actually buy our electricity from the folks who produce it, rather than buying it indirectly from the people who control the power lines.
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