Deregulation at 20: Consumers have the power to shop for electricity, but most don’t

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – “There it is ladies and gentlemen,” said a smiling Governor Tom Ridge in 1996 as he signed legislation that deregulated electricity in Pennsylvania.

It’s been 20 years since the bill designed to decrease electricity bills for all Pennsylvanians became law.

“Back then, in 1996, the electricity generation price was 15- to 20-percent higher than the rest of the country, not just the region but the entire nation,” remembered Gladys Brown who is now chairwoman of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission but was a Senate staffer who worked on the legislation two decades ago.

It put Pennsylvania on the forefront of consumer choice for a utility.

Dozens of legislative staff members, former PUC commissioners, and officials who shepherded electric deregulation through the process celebrated its 20th anniversary at Thursday’s PUC public meeting. They touted its many successes.

“We will continue to be steadfast in our commitment to bring electric competition to the consumers of Pennsylvania and doing it with safeguards and consumer protections that we should all be proud of,” PUC Commissioner Rob Powelson said.

There have been bumps in the road like the polar vortex in 2014. ABC27 reported extensively on the crisis where thousands of consumers with variable rates were shocked by bills that spiked as much as 400 percent.

“We saw the reaction of the marketplace and a very unfortunate drop, a very substantial drop, in customer trust and many of those customers reverted back to the safe harbor of default service,” Commissioner John Coleman said.

It was a learning experience. The PUC cracked down on bad actors and added new rules to protect consumers.

A recent survey showed mixed results. More than 90 percent of Pennsylvanians are aware that they can shop for electricity, but just under 40 percent bother to do it. They’re pushed to a default provider. But the survey also showed month over month growth for 14 consecutive months in the number of consumers shopping on PAPowerswitch.com.

Whether customers actually shop or not, most would agree that 20 years after its signing, that deregulation bill was a boon for consumers.

“They can make their own decision,” Brown said. “It makes it easier for them. They can figure out what works best for them, and they’re saving money.”

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