JP Observer: Better electric supplier just around the corner

Nervous and excited as Nov. 3 approaches? After we cast our ballots and while we wait for results will be a good time to take a minute to look at a recent electric bill and see what it says under “Total Charges for Electricity.”

Sounds silly, but what people in Jamaica Plain and all Bostonians see will turn out to be important to them and the entire community in the next few months—and then for years to come.

The two categories of charges on the bills are 1) “Supplier” for the actual generation of electricity and 2) “Delivery” of the electricity and maintenance of the account by Eversource for Boston electricity customers. Amounts for each added together make the total monthly bill. 

No matter the Supplier, Eversource provides Delivery. Most customers have Eversource also as the Supplier, and it says “Basic Service” there on the bill in that case,

Customers who see another Supplier named may well want to switch back to Eversource Basic Service soon for several very good reasons, according to the City of Boston and the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office (AGO), as presented by the City of Boston Office of Environment, Energy and Open Space (EEOS) on its website and in a series of recent webinars.

Most important, the long awaited City implemented Community Choice Electricity (CCE)—which aims to make renewable electricity available to Boston electricity consumers at an affordable price—will be officially announced to the about 250,000 electricity customers near the end of this November. Then, CCE, with all its benefits, is scheduled to launch in February.

Customers that have Eversource Basic Service as the Supplier will automatically be enrolled in CCE, unless they choose to opt out for some reason. Anyone with another supplier can and will probably want to opt in to CCE instead.

The City is making it clear that cost savings with CCE cannot be guaranteed compared to Eversource Basic Service. There will be no contracts, however, and no penalties for changing suppliers. 

A combination of factors—everyone who has been working so hard on this hopes and expects—will make having CCE as one’s Supplier a very good thing. Since CCE was established by the state, more than 100 other cities and towns have adopted it. 

The next big news for Jamaica Plain and Boston is due to come this fall. Renewable energy suppliers will have responded to a request for proposals that went out from the City with the rates they would offer to CCE customers. Given Boston’s buying power, it is hoped that the City can select a supplier with advantageous rates that’s also as local as possible. Selection of a supplier is expected to take place by mid-November, so pricing will be known when CCE notices go out to customers at the end of the month.

After the election Nov. 3, the City will begin specific outreach efforts to let people, including immigrants and people who speak other languages, know about the coming CCE. They will also reach out to Main Streets programs and other organizations to spread the word, according to Taylor Connolly, Director of Communications and Community Engagement for the City’s Department of the Environment.

The Boston City Council voted to adopt the state CCE program, and Mayor Marty Walsh signed the resolution in fall, 2017. In the City of Boston Climate Action Plan 2019, the mayor set a goal of the city becoming carbon neutral by 2050. 

A group made up of Boston residents, advocates and local leaders, working with EEOS since 2018, established a total of six guiding principles that the state Department of Public Utilities (DPU) approved. The admirable principles are to: “strengthen consumer protection; offer affordable and stable electric rates; reduce carbon emissions; increase the share of renewable energy on the grid; support local renewable energy; and commit to environmental justice,” according to the City.

“BCAN is thrilled we are so close to the launch date of CCE,” said Loie Hayes in a recent interview. She is a member of the working group and a member of the board of BCAN (Boston Climate Action Network, or BostonCAN), an organization of Boston residents that has advocated for and supported CCE since the beginning.

“CCE will greatly increase the amount of renewable energy available to Boston customers,” she said, adding that she is glad the City will pay close attention to local sources of the energy “in order to shut down dirty energy sources here.”

DPU approved Boston’s plan for its municipal community CCE program in July this year. Consultants hired by the City are a key part of CCE. Boston hired two consultants. Colonial Power Group helps cities and towns put together their CCE programs. Community Paradigm Associates specializes in putting together decision-making processes that include community. For more information about CCE go to: boston.gov/community-choice-electricity.

In a directly related troublesome consumer issue, lots of us have been contacted over recent years by phone, in person, and/or by mail by representatives of companies who want us to sign on with them as our supplier instead of Eversource. [I got a robo call from a marketer while I was writing this “congratulating” me on being “eligible” for “new discounted electric rates” and was told to “stay on the line” for more information. I didn’t.]

These companies often enthusiastically promise energy that is better for the climate and has lower costs, according the City and the AGO. The companies try to appeal to Boston people with the same motives—renewable, affordable energy—as those who truly support and promote the meaningful CCE program.

The problem is, according to the City and the AGO, the “competitive electric suppliers” (called CES for short in this column) are private for-profits whose promises often don’t pan out. And they ask customers to lock themselves into contracts. A supplier other than Eversource Basic Service appears on those customers’ Eversource bills, along with the supplier’s phone number.

BCAN has recently been soliciting people to tell their stories of signing up with a CES.

An unnamed BCAN member who lives in JP near Franklin Park is quoted on a BCAN flyer, saying, “One day a young guy rang out doorbell and asked me if I want to switch to an electricity supply company that would provide more climate friendly sources of energy. I was very interested.”

The member said the guy said his company would provide “greener” energy than Eversource, and they might have to pay a bit more for it. “We signed up and for years paid more than the regular Eversource monthly amount, but I felt good that we were reducing greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.” Down the road the BCAN member did more research and found out that the supply was mainly nuclear energy and half of the rest was natural gas, a greenhouse gas source.

“So, on top of paying extra over the years, we also kept right on contributing to greenhouse gases and encouraged nuclear power, which I detest! Be warned: Get informed before signing up for any independent electric energy supply company.”  

On its website at “Protect Your Electric Account,” the City of Boston says of the CES deals in bold: Avoiding these contracts may be in your best interest.” At a webinar on Oct. 8, Aidan Smith, City of Boston Community Choice Electricity Outreach Coordinator, listed some of the problems people have found with CES, including high costs, false statements of utility affiliation, aggressive marketing, targeting of vulnerable populations, contracts that are difficult to cancel, high terminations fees, and misleading information about energy sources and amount of renewable energy.

At the series of multilingual “Energy Justice Webinars,” the City of Boston spelled out what electricity consumers should do to protect themselves, including: being aware of “imposter scams” where the marketer pretends to be from or associated with a utility company; decline to talk to them, because Eversource will never reach out to discuss electric supply options; be careful not to get “slammed” where a company signs you up without your permission; ask door-to-door marketers for ID, and don’t provide information about your electric account before you sign up for something.

The AGO’s office has logged more than 3,000 complaints about CES companies since 2015 and has identified CES as a major consumer issue. On average, the office says, from July 2016 through June 2017, CES cost customers $226 more per year than Basic Service would have cost, with low income and minority household communities in Boston being hardest hit. AGO estimates are that $340 million was lost to the Boston economy because of the higher electric rates paid by people who switched to CES that year. 

What about people who signed up with a CES and now want out, either because they don’t like the deal or they want to automatically qualify for CCE—or, more likely, both?

First, the City advises, people have three days to cancel any signed contract. Then, if it’s been longer, they should call the supplier on the Eversource bill. “If there is no early termination fee, instruct them to switch back to Eversource Basic Service. If there is an early contract termination fee, ask them to waive it. If they refuse to waive the fee, you have three options: Switch once the contract ends. End the contract but be aware you have to pay an early termination fee. Seek further help.”

Customers can contact the AGO at 617-727-8400 if they feel there were deceptive, misleading practices or other violations. They can call the DPU at 877-866-5066 if they have problems with unauthorized or mysterious changes to their electrical accounts.

For more information about protecting an electricity account, go to boston.gov/electric-bill.

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