Private members bill to shed light on your utility bills

Since the dawn of electricity deregulation, Alberta consumers have been living in the dark trying to understand their power bills.

Since the dawn of electricity deregulation, Alberta consumers have been living in the dark trying to understand their power bills.

It’s not for lack of trying — Albertans aren’t stupid.

But you almost have to be as bright as theoretical physicist Steven Hawking to understand deregulation’s offspring — the balancing pool allocation, transmission charges, line loss, the regulated rate option, distribution charges, administration charges, rate riders and the local access fee.

Now there may be a lightness of understanding on the way. A Central Alberta MLA’s bill aimed at helping consumers understand their bills and comparison shop power providers received third reading in the Alberta legislature on Monday.

Joe Anglin’s private member’s Bill 201, the Electric Utilities (Transparency in Billing) Amendment Act, calls for a report within eight months of the amendment coming into force, from the Alberta Utilities Commission to the minister of Energy “that contains recommendations to improve transparency in the billing of customers and the format of bills sent to customers.”

“The report must include: a) a proposed standardized bill for customers that identifies all electric energy and non-energy charges or credits and b) … must include the replacement of the term ‘regulated rate’ with ‘variable market rate’ or another term that accurately reflects the variable nature of the rate for electricity charged to customers under the regulated rate tariff.”

The passing itself of Bill 201 signals a bit of a miracle, with perhaps more on the way for power consumers. It’s only the second time in Alberta that a private member’s bill has passed, said Anglin. The first one was 92 years ago. On top of that, the vote on Anglin’s bill was unanimous — granted there were some last-minute amendments he made before the final vote.

Anglin became the independent MLA for Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre after leaving the Wildrose Party caucus early last month following a dispute about the constituency’s nomination process.

Anglin said on Tuesday that he was extremely pleased that the bill passed. “It shows you can work across party lines and get things done.”

One of the things in his favour was a report just released — but after his bill was introduced — by Alberta’s Market Surveillance Administrator (MSA).

The MSA’s mandate, as a watchdog, includes “surveillance, investigation, and enforcement to help ensure fair, efficient, and openly competitive electricity and retail natural gas markets in Alberta,” according to its website.

The Nov. 27 report on residential retail markets for electricity and natural gas states that the consumer’s ability to make accurate price comparisons is inadequate.

“Product information on retailers’ websites is often opaque and incomplete. To provide a specific example, certain retailers do not list admin fees, which can amount to a significant portion of monthly electricity or natural gas bills, on their websites, or they are only included in the fine print,” the report also states. (To read the MSA report go to albertamsa.ca.)

Anglin said he put the bill forward because most people don’t understand the extra (ancillary) charges on their utility bill. “Everyone talks about that.

“This lack of knowledge for consumers puts consumers at a tremendous disadvantage.”

“What I’m hoping now as we move forward, we can construct a standardized bill that forces these power companies to basically tell us how they are constructing these charges so we can better manage them as consumers.”

The bill forces the commission’s hand to get to work to come up with the standardization, said Anglin.

“The whole idea is if you can’t disclose it, then my view is you can’t charge it,” he said about billing transparency.

With full disclosure, consumers will be able to hold power companies accountable, he said.

Anglin points to how people go away on a holiday, use little or no electricity, but still see a $40 or $50 bill. “Why, for example, are you being charged line loss if you’re not using electricity?”

Line loss is the amount of electricity lost as it is transmitted along power lines.

Anglin gets two power bills — one at home in Rimbey and one in Edmonton — from two power companies.

“I can’t make heads nor tails on how to compare the bills and decide which options are better for me.”

One day in the not too distant future, Alberta consumers can expect to go comparison shopping for electricity. At long last.

As for deregulation itself — that’s another discussion.

barr@reddeeradvocate

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