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A Mom Gets Charged Up About Electricity Shopping

It's January, which means it's time for me to harass all of our service providers for better deals. The $15 off each month I scored from Verizon expired in December, so they'll be getting a call from me, as will DIRECTV. But the biggie is our electric bill.

At the start of 2010, Pennsylvania deregulated the electricity market, which meant customers could shop around for their electricity. Our average bill, it should be noted, has gone up since deregulation; competition isn't helping us yet. But there are currently about 30 companies marketing kilowatts around here. That's an opportunity or a pain in the butt, depending on how much you relish discussions with customer service representatives in far-flung locales.

This is not just a Pennsylvania issue. Currently 15 states have competitive electricity markets, including our New York and New Jersey neighbors. But the issue of electricity deregulation has gotten a lot of publicity locally, and observers say Keystone State residents are some of the most active electricity shoppers nationwide.

Our electric bill is a monster. We don't have a big house, but we have electric heat, and our heat pump hums constantly when the temperatures dip into the 20s. It stinks. I'm embarrassed to admit this, but last month we used 3,185 kilowatts - and I opened an electricity bill for $342.18. (In the spring and fall the total dips to near $100.)

I'm on an obsessive turn-out-the-lights and for-Chrissakes-put-a-sweater-on-if-you're-cold crusade with my kids and husband. We decorate with Christmas wreaths; we don't do outdoor lights. We've got timers on our electric water heater, and I try to unplug appliances when we're not using them. I've threatened divorce if one more time my husband disconnects his laptop or cell phone from the charger while leaving the cord plugged into the wall. It's tempting to use the clothesline, but honestly, towels encased in ice crystals aren't all that appealing.

With a bill like mine, shopping around for cheaper kilowatts can mean notable savings. At our current usage rates, if we pay one cent less per kilowatt hour, we save $30 a month.

Last January I signed on with Direct Energy, a company that might be headquartered in Texas but I can't really tell, for a rate of 8.99 cents per kilowatt. I was locked in for a year. That period has expired, so I called and threatened to jump ship to a lower-priced competitor. Direct Energy offered me 8.49 cents. So far, so good. Then just yesterday our local utility, PPL, unveiled a tiered, time-of-use system, with top rates of 7.5 cents per kilowatt. But that's only good through May, at which point the rate would likely jump, and I'd have to shop around again. I spoke to two different Direct Energy customer service representatives who tried to convince me that I wouldn't see much savings by the time PPL got around to setting me up for those rates, which looks like it might not be until February.

A year into deregulation, I'm not a fan. The prices have gone up, not down, and shopping for electricity puts one more item on my to-do list. The only positive is that it has forced me to read my bill - and reminds me that trimming a few of the big monthly costs can create more savings than, say, searching for yogurt coupons.

Back to the phone I go, dialing for savings. I can't get through to PPL, because so many of my neighbors are trying to take advantage of their low (temporary) rates. Wish me luck. And if you're an active electricity shopper, in Pennsylvania or any of the other 14 deregulated states? Please let me know your tips for getting the best deals.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Tripp, CC 2.0.

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