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Pennsy's power shift

February 18, 1999

Pennsylvania's Public Utility Commission this week released figures indicating that the first stage of electric power deregulation in the state has been successful. Of the 2 million people who've signed up for the program so far, nearly 500,000 report switching to new (and cheaper) power vendors. The program is one lawmakers in neighboring Maryland should pay close attention to.

Some features that are probably worth copying include:

- Not everyone in the state had to make a choice at once. Customer choice will be phased in. Two-thirds of the state's 5.4 million power users became eligible for the program in January. The phased-in feature of the program assured consumers that there'd be enough regulatory help to handle any problems that arose.

- Though the program officially opened in January, the public-education program and sales pitches by would-be suppliers began last July. Consumers had a long time to consider whether switching power suppliers was in their best interests, and if so, to which one.

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The PUC did not provide figures by company of the number of electric consumers who've switched to new suppliers, but some firms did so voluntarily. Duquesne Light Company, for example, told The Associated Press that 32,000 of the 270,000 of its customers who enrolled in the program decided to switch.

When this program was first announced, we (and at least one member of the PUC) expressed concern over the possibility that some hard-to-serve areas would be left without reliable power, and that the existing electric transmission system wouldn't be able to handle the increased load. No problems in these areas have been reported so far.

Private suppliers say that despite the public-education campaign, it may take years for the idea of electric competition to catch on. So far the pace of change seems just about right - slow enough so regulators can keep up, but fast enough so that consumers can see progress, and hopefully some savings in their monthly bills.

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