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FINDING BEST POWER DEAL IS A TURNOFF By KIRSTEN DANIS
Likes new company.New Yorkers have been zapped with sky-high Con Ed bills this summer - but few customers have bothered trying to get their electricity at cheaper rates. And it's no wonder why.
"This stuff is very confusing," said Anita Altman, who quit Con Ed and has been buying electricity from an independent company for a little more than a year.
"We all have limited time in our lives. Who can keep up with this?"
Fewer than 3 percent of the utility's customers have switched to other energy suppliers - although energy deregulation is 2 years old in New York.
Like changing long-distance telephone providers, switching to a new power provider just takes a phone call - but virtually no one is taking advantage of the opportunity.
"There's no question that the results nationally have been profoundly disappointing," said Ken Malloy, president of the Center for the Advancement of Energy Markets, a Washington think tank that promotes deregulation.
Deregulation lets Con Ed customers buy electricity from other companies while still getting the juice delivered by the utility.
Theoretically, competition means cheaper rates.
But until May, it was hard for independent companies to compete with Con Ed, which had its own power plants and rates that were regulated by the state Public Service Commission.
Now, though, Con Ed buys its juice from other generators on the open market - and the cost is rising as demand outpaces supply.
"People are scrambling to find the best way to purchase [power]," said Jonathan Gewirtz, director of business development for ECONnergy Energy in Rockland County.
Finding the best deal is still a daunting and time-consuming mission.
The PSC does not have an easy-to-read rate-comparison chart to help people out.
Consumers have to call each independent company and compare its rates with the "market supply price" listed on their Con Ed bills. That price is what Con Ed pays for electricity on the open market.
But it's not a perfect comparison because the number Con Ed lists is the price charged the previous month - sure to change the next month.
In addition, many companies offer a flat monthly rate, which often beats Con Ed's fluctuating price in summer but not in winter.
It's difficult to figure out whether customers are going to save in the long term, Gewirtz said. "Nobody can say that an [independent supplier] will definitely beat out Con Ed - but it's a pretty safe bet."
The possibility of a relatively small annual savings won't tempt too many people to leave a familiar utility, Malloy said.
Altman saved only about $15 this year by buying her electricity from 1st Rochdale Cooperative Group, a New York-based nonprofit.
But for the Upper West Side consumer, it wasn't about the money.
Altman said she wouldn't have bothered looking for a Con Ed alternative just to save a few dollars. She changed suppliers because she liked 1st Rochdale's consumer-friendly and environmentally friendly mission.
Malloy envisions a future where competition breeds innovation - such as companies offering electricity, home appliances, heating and other residential needs all in one package.
But that won't happen - and customers won't budge - unless the government forces them, Malloy said.
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), July 31, 2000