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The Color of Money
So Many Choices, So Little Time

By Michelle Singletary
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 17, 1999; Page H01

I've already gotten my first taste of energy deregulation. It came with a telephone call, of course while I was busy cooking dinner and washing clothes. It was from some company, whose name I immediately forgot, asking if I wanted to switch to another gas company.

"Why do I need to switch?" I asked. "My gas looks the same as always and it cooks my food just fine."

"Switching to our company could save you money," the representative said. "What's your monthly gas bill now?"

With that one question, I fear, we've entered another era of Let's Break Up Monopolies to Drive Customers Bonkers by Bombarding Them With Commercial Appeals From Companies Offering New Rate Plans and Complicated Bills That You Need a Degree in Economics to Decipher.

And let's not forget those annoying early-morning and evening telemarketing calls that surely will follow this latest restructuring.

I want energy deregulation the way I wanted that nasty castor oil my grandmother would make me swallow whenever I was coming down with a cold.

"Baby, I know it tastes bad, but this is good for you," she would say before forcing that big tablespoon past my tightly clenched lips.

Currently, 23 states are in the process of deregulating their electric utilities, according to the latest figures from the Department of Energy. Twenty states and the District are unbundling or conducting pilot programs for restructuring their natural gas industries.

When all this unbundling is done, customers will be able to choose their own gas or electricity supplier.

Theoretically, deregulation is supposed to drive down prices and lead to new services. These new services, of course, will require us to make still more decisions, as if we needed them.

For example, you might be asked by your utility company if you would like your electricity to be generated by solar energy, methane gas, coal, wind or a nuclear reactor.

To which I would say: I don't know. I don't have time to find out. I can't keep track of my kid's sneakers. I just want the power to come on when I flip that little switch.

Proponents of deregulation are telling us we should feel excited about the opportunity to shop around for energy.

To them I say: What power trip are you on?

I now have to figure out what a "therm" is. If you don't know you'll have to learn, because that's how natural gas is measured. So, how many therms does it take to cook a turkey? Which company's therm is cheaper? Why do I have to know anyway?

I'll have to begin comparing price per kilowatt-hour for my electricity. How am I supposed to know what a kilowatt-hour goes for on the open market?

I'm as concerned as any consumer about saving money. But I still can't figure out all the charges on my telephone bill, thanks to deregulation in that industry.

In the near future, maybe everything that comes to the house will be combined under one marketer. Just imagine that bill: That'll be $50 for the therms, $65 for the 500 channels, $40 for local calls, $70 for long-distance and, for good measure, $10 for Internet access.

Some experts say the cost savings will all but make up for the confusion and problems we'll experience as the energy industry restructures. But estimates of how much consumers will save are all over the place. Consumer advocates question whether there will be any savings at all.

To be sure, the real winners will be big business. Giant corporations will make millions buying and selling utility companies. Their big business customers will reap huge discounts because of the amount of energy they consume and the deals they'll be able to cut.

One survey conducted by RKS Research & Consulting, a national market research and polling company, found that 17 percent of U.S. consumers can now choose their energy suppliers. Yet only 2 percent have actually switched.

But the industry is confident it can talk us into liking this new deal.

"Consumers are saying that their expectations for energy service are being met — not exceeded — by their current supplier," said Charleen Heidt, RKS vice president.

In other words, we're satisfied.

So I've got an idea: How about leaving us alone?



Michelle Singletary welcomes comments and column ideas, but she cannot offer specific personal financial advice. Her e-mail address is singletarym@washpost.com. Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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