Sales Tax Holiday for Energy-Efficient Appliances Comes to Texas May 26–28, 2012

Tax Free Shopping 2012This Memorial Day weekend, Texans can save on sales tax on ENERGY STAR appliances using the state’s fifth annual sales tax holiday.

The state-wide promotion runs from May 28–30 and will help residents cut energy costs by allowing them to purchase one of the following ENERGY STAR–certified appliance upgrades without having to pay a single cent in sales tax:

--Air conditioners, up to $6,000

--Ceiling fans

--Clothes washers, but not clothes dryers (ENERGY STAR doesn’t label clothes dryers because most use about the same amount of energy)

--Dehumidifiers

--Dishwashers

--Light bulbs, incandescent and fluorescent

--Programmable thermostats manufactured up to December 31, 2009 (ENERGY STAR no longer rates programmable thermostats, but any ENERGY STAR–rated programmable thermostats manufactured before January 1, 2010 that are still in stock are eligible) --Refrigerators, up to $2,000

What if I Want to Buy Online or Through a Catalog?

You can shop online or through a catalog and still qualify for the sales tax exemption as long as the ENERGY STAR–certified appliance is paid for and the retailer accepts the order between May 26–28. In such cases, the appliance may be shipped after May 28.

What About Out-of-Stock, Backordered and On-Order Appliances?

If the ENERGY STAR–certified appliance is backlogged, temporarily out of stock or on order by the retailer, you’ll still qualify for the sales tax exemption as long as you purchase the appliance between May 26–28.

How Does the Sales Tax Holiday Work With Layaway Plans?

You’ll be able to qualify for the sales tax exemption as long as you complete your order and the ENERGY STAR–certified appliance is accepted into layaway between May 26–28. You can also qualify for the sales tax exemption on an ENERGY STAR–certified appliance already in layaway if you make your final payment between May 26–28.

Are Delivery Charges Tax Exempt?

Some delivery charges will qualify for the sales tax exemption. Several factors determine the tax-exempt status of your order — including if you have a mix of eligible ENERGY STAR–certified appliances and non-eligible items and whether you are charged a flat delivery fee or not — so make sure to ask your retailer for more information on delivery charges before you place your order.

Are the Installation Charges for My New Appliance Also Tax Exempt?

Whether or not the installation of ENERGY STAR–certified appliances qualifies for the sales tax exemption is somewhat complicated and depends on several factors like the type of installation and the nature of the jobsite. For more information on the tax-exempt status of installations, contact the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, your installer or contractor.

Sources

Window on State Government, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, “ENERGY STAR Sales Tax Holiday Information for Sellers Memorial Day Weekend: May 26-28, 2012.”

University of North Texas Adds 6 New Electric Vehicle Charging Stations

Wednesday May 9, 2012
Posted at 08:12

UNT Car Charging StationsThe Mean Green just got a bit nicer to owners of electric vehicles.

The University of North Texas campus is getting six new EV charging stations, thanks to the school’s We Mean Green Fund (WMGF), Office of Sustainability and partner ECOtality. The charging stations, each equipped with a 60-inch charger and a handicap-accessible charger, will be installed at the Radio, Television, and Film Building; the Murchison Performing Arts Center; and Wooten Hall.

UNT joins the University of Texas at Arlington; University of California, Los Angeles; University of Colorado, Boulder; and Vanderbilt University as the only colleges in the nation with EV-charging capabilities.

Helen Bailey is UNT’s director of facility management and construction, and the University’s facilities representative for the WMGF subcommittee that green-lit the project. Bailey said she hopes the charging stations will encourage more people in the Denton, Texas area to invest in more hybrid and EV automobiles.

Sources

UNT to Add Six Electrical Vehicle Charging Stations,” North Texas Daily, March 29, 2012.

Win Two Club-Level Tickets to the Rockets Game

Monday April 23, 2012
Posted at 07:59

The Houston Rockets’ season is winding down. If you want to catch a game, you had better act fast.  Spark Energy is giving away two club-level seats for the April 26 game against the New Orleans Hornets. To enter our drawing, go to this page on Facebook and submit your information by 5:00 p.m. on April 23.  We’ll notify the winners on April 24. Good luck!

Texans: Consider Locking in Electricity Prices Now - They Could Rise Soon

If you live in Texas, now might be a good time to start thinking about locking in your electricity price.

In February, both the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUCT) and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) told state lawmakers that there is likely not going to be enough electricity supply to meet demand this summer. It’s a problem that can hurt electricity customers in the state who wait to sign up for fixed-price plans.

“Basically, what ERCOT and the PUCT told lawmakers was that falling natural gas prices are hurting the construction of new power plants that are desperately needed to meet the electricity demand in Texas,” said Jim Head, Spark Energy Vice President of Marketing and Sales. “And whenever supply fails to meet demand, the price of electricity usually increases.”

“Once electricity prices rise, the only thing that electricity customers can do to help offset the increase is to use less electricity or spend money on energy efficiency improvements,” Head said. “What people should really consider doing is looking at their options for locking in their electricity price before prices have a chance to increase.”

Sources

Top Texas Officials Warn of Power Plant Shortages,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Feb. 9, 2012.

Texas Electricity Rates Expected to Increase

Tuesday March 20, 2012
Posted at 13:20
Tags: ercot

Texas electricity rates increasing

The relatively low electricity rates that many Texans have enjoyed in recent years will likely rise over the next two years as the price of natural gas increases and power supplies struggle to keep pace with rising demand, experts said recently.

Experts offered the prediction to an audience of electricity retailers and brokers at the annual Texas Electricity Professionals Association’s conference in Dallas. David Givens, who follows energy prices for Argus Media, predicted that the confluence of rising natural gas prices and tight electricity supplies could result in electricity prices that increase 10 percent in both 2012 and 2013.

As a result, electricity retailers and brokers should encourage customers to sign up now for one- or two-year fixed-rate electricity plans so they can secure lower prices, said Brandon Schwertner, a consultant with Sumer Capital. “Just tell them to lock in prices,” he said.

Trip Doggett, who heads the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the state’s largest electric grid, told audience members that electricity supplies this summer were especially tight because of a record-setting heat wave that strained the system and caused several unexpected power plant shutdowns. During the heat wave, ERCOT experienced record-high electricity demand on three consecutive days in August, peaking at 68,000 megawatts on Aug. 3. The result, Doggett said, was that ERCOT’s reserve power margin was severely reduced from 17.5 percent to 3.8 percent.

While Doggett said ERCOT’s grid was strained by high temperatures and plant shutdowns, he said that he was more concerned that the state’s relatively low electricity prices hadn’t motivated more power generation companies to build power plants or otherwise add generating capacity to meet growing demand in the state. One of the central ideas behind electricity deregulation is that power generators would want to add power to the grid whenever there is demand. In the state’s large deregulated market, generators earn money only when they sell power.

To help relieve stress on the grid, Doggett said that ERCOT is looking at its options, including studying how to get more large power users to agree to contracts that require them to accept power interruptions during periods when electricity supplies are especially tight. One idea being explored would involve offering lower rates to such users in exchange for agreeing to the contracts. Other speakers at the conference suggested that the state modify its deregulated market to allow for capacity payments, which are paid to generators to set and maintain a certain amount of spare electric capacity for emergencies.

Sources

Texas Electric Rates Expected to Climb Over Next Two Years,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Nov. 3, 2011.

Texas Smart Meter Installations Spread to Galveston County

Tuesday March 13, 2012
Posted at 08:43

smart-meters-2.png

If you live in Galveston County, Texas and you see someone in your yard wearing a black uniform and a black helmet with a face shield, don’t be frightened. You’re just getting a new Smart Meter.

CenterPoint Energy, the public utility that distributes electricity to homes in the Houston and Galveston areas of Texas, recently launched a digital Smart Meter upgrade program in Galveston County, including Galveston, Jamaica Beach, Santa Fe, Hitchcock, Bayou Vista, and parts of League City and La Marque.

The black-clad workers are employees of North Houston Pole Line, a contractor that’s handling the meter installations for CenterPoint. They should knock on your door to let you know they’re there before they go around back and install the meters, but if they don’t get an answer, they’ll go ahead and install the meter anyway.

In case you don’t hear them, you arrive home when they’re already at work or you just want to double-check their bona fides, all workers’ uniforms will have a company ID badge. You can even check out front for a North Houston Pole Line company vehicle.

The wireless Smart Meters that CenterPoint is installing will allow the utility to “talk” directly with your meter to get remote updates on your electricity usage. That means no more meter readers. The Smart Meters also let CenterPoint turn on and off power remotely in cases where electricity service is being set up or discontinued, which can be a big convenience if you’re moving.

Once the installer gets to work, it should only take about 10 minutes to complete the installation.

The Smart Meter installation program is scheduled to be completed by the end of March.

Sources

CenterPoint Energy Replacing its Meters,” The Galveston County Daily News, Jan. 27, 2012.

Report: Energy Deregulation Brings Lower Rates and Better Services

Friday January 27, 2012
Posted at 11:10

States that have allowed retail electric suppliers to compete for customers have seen increased product and service innovation compared to regulated states with monopoly utilities that both supply electricity and deliver it to customers’ homes and businesses, according to a recently released report.

The 2011 Annual Baseline Assessment of Choice in Canada and the United States (ABACCUS) report, by Distributed Energy Financial Group LLC (DEFG), found that electricity choice is “thriving and growing” among commercial, industrial and residential customers in many deregulated U.S. states and Canadian provinces “because well-structured retail electric markets foster the introduction of new products and services that are not available in traditional monopoly areas.”

The report cited competition for customers among retail electricity suppliers as the driving force behind a growing list of energy management options that customers are responding to favorably. Nat Treadway, DEFG managing partner and lead author of the report, said in a statement that the research clearly showed that well-structured deregulated electricity markets were delivering new and better services at lower costs than ever before. “We are seeing new companies, new investments in local economies, and the development of a new energy services marketplace,” Treadway said.

Residential electricity customers in deregulated markets are benefitting from electric choice and are in a position to take advantage of additional benefits from new technology as it is implemented, the report stated. Smart grid infrastructure technologies like advanced smart meters, communications and control devices and in-home electricity usage displays were cited as examples of technologies that have allowed retail energy suppliers to develop pricing and service choices that benefit consumers. Electric choice was also credited for helping the public address goals related to customer support, energy efficiency, job creation and the environment.

According to the report, consumers “now have more choices, more information and better ways to control their energy bills and increase the value of electric service in their lives.”

The report also highlighted several trends in 2011, including declining retail power prices, an increase of customer protections and the development of low-income assistance programs and energy efficiency and demand-response programs. Electricity choice also led to dramatic investments in renewable energy. In fact, 80 percent of U.S. installed wind capacity was found to be located in deregulated electricity markets.

The scorecard that the ABACCUS report uses to qualify the data it collects on deregulated electricity markets helps U.S. policymakers understand how their decisions positively or negatively affect the development of those markets.

Of the 18 deregulated electricity markets analyzed in the report, Texas’ competitive market ranked first in overall excellence for the fifth consecutive year. The other two markets given “Excellent” ratings were New York (2nd) and Pennsylvania (3rd). Illinois scored 7th with a “Good” rating. California came in last place with a rating of “Unsatisfactory.”

Sources

Competitive Electricity Markets Spur Consumer-Focused Innovations,” Distributed Energy Financial Group press release, Nov. 30, 2011.

Electric Deregulation Has Become a Big Success in Texas

Wednesday January 18, 2012
Posted at 14:55

electricity-choice-texas.jpg

After a decade of weathering the storm of residential electric deregulation in Texas, consumers in the state’s competitive markets are finally seeing the promise of deregulation — a lot of power, a lot of choice and cheap electricity rates.

Although deregulation in Texas has been a roller coaster at times, retail electric providers are able to offer cheap electricity in Houston and other competitive markets in the state for less than the national average due to private investment in natural gas plants, diversified electric generation and an independent electric grid.

The Roller Coaster of Deregulation and Natural Gas Prices

After the state’s monopolistic utilities were deregulated and broken up in 2002, private investors, not consumers, put up tens of billions of dollars for new electricity generation, mostly for natural gas plants. The new plants were cheaper to build and didn’t come with the opposition of coal or nuclear plants, operated about a third more efficiently than existing plants and burned clean.

Investors hit the lottery during the early years of deregulation when enormous gas fields were discovered in places like the Barnett Shale. The huge supply has ultimately led to lower natural gas prices, which play a key role in the ability of energy providers to offer cheap electricity rates.

But electric rates haven’t always been so low. Hurricane Katrina, power congestion due to poor grid management and other issues caused natural gas prices to soar in 2007, to five times the price of natural gas in 2002, when deregulation began. In summer 2008, natural gas prices peaked, doubling from 2007 levels, causing electric rates to range from 13 to 27 cents per kilowatt hour. By comparison, the national average was about 10 cents per kilowatt hour.

Now, however, gas prices have fallen again and electric rates have fallen with them. Since their peak in 2008, electric rates have fallen about 28 percent, according to industry data. In 2010, the average U.S. electric rate was 11.58 cents per kilowatt hour. That same year, there were 33 offers in North Texas alone for electric rates less than 11.58 cents per kilowatt hour, according to the state’s Public Utility Commission.

As of the writing of this post, the Power to Choose website at www.powertochoose.com, lists more than 57 offers of one-year fixed-rate plans from alternative retail electric companies for less than 10 cents per kilowatt hour.

Deregulation Encouraged Development of Wind Power

Texas has a more expensive mix of fuels for electricity generation than other states, primarily because it relies heavily on natural gas over coal and nuclear — coal and nuclear provided almost 65 percent of electricity nationally, but just 53 percent for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which is responsible for operating the state’s electric grid and managing its deregulated market.

However, wind power — another benefit of deregulation — is playing a more important role in generating electricity for Texas consumers, a move that ironically is helping lower electric rates by replacing natural gas. As a result of deregulation, Texas, which would come in as number six on the list of highest energy producing countries if it were an independent nation, now gets 8 percent of its energy from wind and is a global leader in wind power development.

An Independent Electric Grid Has Meant More Progress

Less regulation and oversight of an independent grid that can respond quickly to market fluctuations and investment has helped pave the way for Texas to receive the major benefits of deregulation. In most states, grid operators face major obstacles in terms of making changes; multiple public utility commissions — and a federal agency — provide layers of oversight, which can delay progress. But that isn’t the case in Texas.

Legislators in Austin have been fairly quiet about electricity regulation in the state, except for a few years ago when electric rates were sky high and again in February when record freezes lead to rolling blackouts and calls for energy conservation.

“We have a postage-stamp process for electricity,” said Mark Armentrout, head of the Texas Institute, a sustainable-technology research firm based at the University of Texas at Dallas, and former ERCOT board member, in an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

As a result of a hands-off approach to energy deregulation, Texas has been able to increase energy production and infrastructure relatively easily. Since 1999, the state has added 45,000 megawatts of new electricity generation, while decommissioning 136 older, less energy-efficient plants and has begun a $5 billion transmission expansion for growing wind power generation according to ERCOT. And the state has been recognized for providing increased options for consumers: for the fifth consecutive year, Texas has been identified as the competitive retail market leader in ABACCUS, the Annual Baseline Assessment of Choice in Canada and the United States, which gauges competition in electricity.

Sources

How Electricity Deregulation Has Paid Off For Texas,” The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, March 28, 2011.

Blown Away: Wind Power Makes Electricity Cheaper in Texas,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 10, 2009.

Deregulation Jolts Texas Electric Bills,” The Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2008.

Competitive Electricity Markets Spur Consumer-Focused Innovations,” Distributed Energy Financial Group, November 30, 2011.

Electric Company ‘Slamming’ and How to Prevent it in Texas

Tuesday October 25, 2011
Posted at 16:41

door-to-door-salesman.jpg

If you live in a deregulated energy market in Texas, you can buy your electricity from one of several retail electric providers (REPs) that compete for your business. Having the power to choose which company you buy electricity from in Texas gives you the chance to shop around and find the best combination of price, customer service and other factors that can give you peace of mind while you save money off monthly electric bills.

Unfortunately, customers are sometimes signed up for electricity service without their knowledge or consent, an unscrupulous activity known as “slamming.” Slamming involves someone switching your REP without your permission. Electric customers usually don’t find out they’ve been slammed until they get a bill from a different electric company than the one they’re supposed to be getting their electricity from.

Customer Rights for Resolving Slamming

Fortunately, slamming is prohibited in Texas and, once a customer has notified their REP of the unauthorized switch, there’s a process established by the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUCT) to help customers who’ve been slammed:

  • The unauthorized REP must return the customer to their original REP as quickly as possible.
  • The unauthorized REP must fix any billing issues, including paying for all transmission and distribution charges associated with returning the customer to their original REP.
  • The unauthorized REP must refund, within five days, all charges paid by the customer for the period of time that the customer was with the unauthorized REP.
  • The customer will pay for electricity used during the period of time that he or she was with the unauthorized REP at a rate no higher than the rate the customer would have paid to the original REP if the unauthorized switch had not occurred.

How to Prevent Slamming

There are several things that the PUCT recommends electric customers do to avoid being slammed:

  • Be aware of promotions offering discounts on your electric bill and be careful when signing any document. Although unintended, your signature on a document may be interpreted as an agreement to switch.
  • Be aware of telemarketers or sales vendors who promise free gifts, lowered rates or better service for switching.
  • Read your electric bill carefully each month.
  • Know the name of the electric company that provides your electric service.
  • Never sign any document without reading it thoroughly.
  • Designate one person in your household who is authorized to make changes to your electric service.
  • Print order conformation page if order was placed online.
  • Read the fine print for the terms of service and electricity facts label
    • If you are being visited by a door-to-door rep, ask for identification.
    • To prevent identity theft, do not share your Social Security number or driver’s license number.
    • Do not share copy of energy bill unless you have verified the identity of the door-to-door rep.
  • Know when your contract with your REP is set to expire. Watch for things like an early termination fee on your electric bill, which may indicate that you’ve been slammed if you haven’t initiated a switch to another REP.
  • Notify your REP immediately if you receive a phone call or notice to “verify” a change in your electric service that you didn’t authorize.
  • Notify your REP immediately if you fail to receive your regular monthly electric bill or receive an electric bill at your address in someone else’s name.

A Word on Electricity Marketing

The PUCT has customer protection rules that regulate the marketing of electricity supply, including online marketing, telemarketing and door-to-door sales:

  • Keep in mind that agents or brokers may earn commissions for getting you to switch to a REP they represent.
  • Every door-to-door salesperson is required to wear a badge with the REP’s name, PUCT certificate number and a toll-free number you can call to verify the salesperson is authorized by the REP.
  • Door-to-door salespeople should obey no-solicitation signs.

Slamming is rare, but it happens. The best way to protect yourself from slamming and prevent it from happening to you is to be attentive when dealing with certain electricity marketers, know your rights as an electric customer and act quickly to address any concerns you may have about being slammed.

If you think you’re the victim of slamming, or you would like to report a REP or marketer, you can file a complaint by calling the PUCT toll-free at 888782.8477.

Sources

Chapter 25 — Substantive Rules Applicable to Electric Service Providers; Subchapter R. — Customer Protection Rules for Retail Electric Service,” Public Utility Commission of Texas, June 1, 2004.

Public Utility Commission of Texas, “Unauthorized Switching of Your Retail Electric Provider.”

Texas Electric Choice Education Program, “FAQs.”

Texas Electric Choice Education Program, “Your Rights.”


Texas Officials Ask Schools to Save Energy as Record Heat Continues

Tuesday September 6, 2011
Posted at 08:18

Texas Education Agency commissioner Robert Scott sent a letter last month to school administrators answering questions about the effect that the state’s lingering heat wave would have on their schools’ electricity usage. The letter also offered tips for how administrators could help decrease energy consumption and save money off monthly electric bills.

Scott eased some concerns among administrators by telling them that the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the agency responsible for the state’s electric grid, had factored the start of the school year into its forecast of electricity needs and that ERCOT doesn’t anticipate a strain on the grid as a result of schools opening their doors.

However, Scott wrote that ERCOT would continue to closely monitor the situation to determine if further conservation measures, already enacted in many cities and towns throughout the state, are necessary.

The letter noted that peak electricity use generally occurs between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. — after many schools have dismissed students for the day — but that ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission of Texas offered several tips for helping administrators save energy and money while easing demand from the grid:

  • Set the thermostat 2 degrees to 4 degrees warmer than usual and close blinds and curtains on windows that get direct sunlight.
  • Turn off all lights and electrical equipment when not in use.
  • Unplug hallway water fountains after 3 p.m.
  • Avoid non-essential activities involving electricity during peak hours, including running large copy jobs and charging cell phones and laptops.

Sources

Texas Education Agency energy conservation letter to administrators, Aug. 11, 2011.

State Officials Ask Schools to Conserve Energy as Extreme Heat Expected to Continue,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Aug. 11, 2011.