When cheaper energy isn't
Judging from emails and phone calls to the Union Leader, he was not alone. The biggest sticker shock came for those on monthly variable rates, some of which doubled in December as a combination of unseasonably cold weather and high prices for natural gas delivered to New England temporarily drove the wholesale price of electricity through the roof.
Customers with regulated utilities or on fixed contracts with unregulated competitors are largely insulated from the wild swings in the spot market. The monthly rate they pay should be high enough to generate reserves that suppliers use to get through the coldest months, when natural gas is used for heating and less is available for power plants.
Some customers, however, were attracted by low variable rates, sold to them in the warm weather months when there's plenty of pipeline capacity for natural gas and wholesale electricity prices drop. Those rates change every month, based on the average wholesale price.
"I had a six-month guarantee at 7.29 cents," said Shaughnessy. "When that expired, I went onto a variable rate. I probably should have known that was going to happen, but I don't look at my electric bill every month and scrutinize what I'm paying."
No notice required
Unregulated energy supply companies are not required by the PUC to notify customers on fixed-rate contracts that their expiration date is coming up and they will be switched over to a non-contract or variable rate, although the two largest competitive suppliers in the state - North American and ENH - say they provide such notices.
North American provided the Union Leader with samples of the emails and letters it sends to customers whose contracts are about to expire. The notice explains how fluctuations in the wholesale price of natural gas are affecting electricity prices and offers customers the opportunity to lock in a fixed rate, but is not personalized with the customer's expiration date.
"As part of our business practice, we don't offer any variable rates. All our rates are fixed for all our customers," he said.
North American and ENH have the largest number of customers in the PSNH service territory and have been marketing aggressively since 2012.
PPG was temporarily suspended from the wholesale energy market on Dec. 24 after defaulting on its financial obligations to the independent grid operator. Its customers were transferred to the regulated utility that serves their community. Most of the 6,000 were assigned to PSNH and can now stay with the regulated utility or make another switch next month.
"Some of those customers have called Resident Power and told us that PPG did not charge them the agreed upon introductory rate," said Bart Fromuth, president of Resident Power. "We are working with PPG to have those corrected."
The most recent "customer migration" report provided by PSNH shows that 96,323 of the utility's 425,829 residential customers now buy energy from an unregulated energy supply company. A year ago, the number of customers who had switched companies was about 50,000.
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