Blog: PUC Chair Urges REP Cooperation with COVID-19 Customer Protections

Financially distressed electric customers complain of long hold times and phone call hang-ups by electric companies.

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Although Texas regulators have adopted policies to help electric customers during the COVID-19 pandemic, some retail electric providers — apparently — have been less than on board.

Public Utility Commission chair DeAnn Walker said recently that the state agency has received numerous customer complaints regarding long hold-times with retail electric providers.  Worse yet, she said, some customers report REPs hanging up on them or failing to return their calls.

Clearly frustrated, Walker also said during the Commission’s open meeting last week that some customers who had requested deferred payment options instead were directed by their REPs to more limited 10-day extensions.

COVID 19 Rules

Under agency rules, any customer facing a non-payment disconnection is clearly within his or her rights to have their bills deferred instead, she said.  “I would like everyone to step back and try to work through this for the good of the state,” said Walker.

The Commission adopted its emergency COVID-19 customer protection rules last month. The emergency protections cover only residential customers who buy electricity in areas of the state with electric deregulation. These include areas around Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth and Corpus Christi.

PUC Chair DeAnn Walker

Among other protections, the new rules bar REPs from disconnecting financially distressed customers and bars REPs from collecting late fees. A 33 cents-per-1,000 kWh charge funds the program. The protections expire on May 14.

“I probably shouldn’t say this but if there are (retail electric providers) that have set their business models on being in this business based on receiving late fees — then, you’ve got a problem with your business model,” said. Walker.

In interviews with the Houston Chronicle, some retail electric providers defended their customer service records. For instance, British-owned Direct Energy told the newspaper that its call center has had an average answer time of less than 10 seconds.

You can read more about the PUC’s COVID-19 customer protection rules, here, on the agency’s website.

— R.A. Dyer