Engineers and facility managers typically shy away from regulatory actions, seeing them as legalistic, bureaucratic, or complex. Merely securing permission from upper management for such involvement may be a problem. Some feel such actions are costly, unlikely to result in savings, or that "you can't fight City Hall." Experience has shown, however, that - at the end of the day - those who maintain such silence usually get stuck with the bill.
Times Have ChangedExcept for small co-op and municipal utilities, power companies have, for almost a century, been accepted as legalized monopolies regulated by state agencies and operating on fixed profit margins. Some customers still think their power costs are being watched and contained, and those limited margins create a zero sum game where cost is simply shifted among rate classes. Some even believe that deregulation replaced regulatory pricing with competitive pricing. They forget that a third to a half of their energy bill is still associated with delivery, which remains regulated.
In this era of special interest groups and corporate lobbying, simply waiting and/or hoping that public utility commissions, legislatures, and utilities will "do the right thing" instead ensures that only other interests are heard.
Working TogetherTo address these challenges, some energy users have pooled their resources through committees and organizations that monitor and intervene in rate proceedings. While the typical forum for their activity is a rate case managed by a public utility commission (PUC), subdivisions within independent system operators (ISO) may also involve ratepayers. ISOs are gradually taking over operations of regional transmission grids and often operate wholesale power markets that set pricing for the commodity portion of an electric bill.
Instead of merely moaning over rate hikes and rules, many enduser organizations now represent their member's interests before such agencies. In so doing, they have often learned that:
- There is strength in numbers; few energy users are alone in their dissatisfaction;
- "Squeaky wheels" often do get the "grease;" and
- Some of the best paybacks may come from influencing regulatory/legal processes.
Finding A Group That Supports Your InterestsTo help energy users find such groups, a directory of them was created at www.energybuyer.org. The list is divided up by states, as well as some regional and international boundaries. State utility consumer advocacy offices (which typically represent smaller customers) are also listed, primarily as possible sources of information about groups active in their states. Updated every two years, the directory presently contains over 300 groups. Contact information and websites (if they exist) are included.
Since some groups may created around a single issue, or merely to aggregate usage to secure better pricing, a bit of "surfing" may be needed to find one that fits your goals. Groups also disappear, combine, or change their names, so be ready for a few dead ends.
To see if a group is right for you, ask a few questions:
- Who are its members and leaders?
- How is it organized: Do bylaws exist, are leaders elected, and who gets to vote?
- What actions has it taken in the past: Would you have supported the group's position?
- Are utilities, energy suppliers, and/or consultants (as vs. endusers) allowed to join? If so, can they influence decisions?
- What do your dues pay for (e.g., information, aggregated pricing, networking, regulatory/legal representation)?
- Are you comfortable talking with other members (e.g., are they at your professional level)?
- Are any of your competitors also members, and does that make a difference to you?
- How are dues and/or contributions to actions determined?
- Can the group help you convince your firm to join and pay dues?
- Is the group growing or shrinking? (Look for vitality and action.)
If no group seems right for you, it may be time to start your own. For guidance, read "A Guide to Forming An Energy Users Group," also at www.energybuyer.org. ES