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The Associated Press February 18, 2010, 5:20PM ET

Md. wants to raise awareness of electric choice

Too many Maryland residents just don't know they can shop around for cheaper electricity suppliers, and state regulators should do more to advertise options, lawmakers said Thursday.

Delegate Dereck Davis, D-Prince George's, and Sen. Catherine Pugh, D-Baltimore, are backing legislation that would require the Public Service Commission to provide more information on its Web site to let residents know how to search for cheaper energy choices.

"They don't even know who the companies are, that's why we believe the Public Service Commission has the responsibility to educate the public on what's available to them," Pugh said during a news conference when the legislation was discussed.

The PSC also would have to report to the Maryland General Assembly each year about its education efforts.

The legislation also would impose new requirements on Maryland's electric utilities. For example, they would have to inform customers about competitive options.

Although Maryland residents have had the option to choose electricity suppliers for years, only about 72,000 people in a state of more than 5 million have exercised the option, Davis said, largely because of a lack of awareness.

"The word is slowly starting to get out there, but more importantly for anyone who is complaining about a high electric bill or for anyone who wants clean energy, there's something out there for everyone," Davis said.

Davis, who switched his electric provider to Washington Gas Energy Services, said residents can save 10 to 13 percent on their electric bills by shopping around.

Jay Kooper, president of the Retail Energy Supply Association, said the industry has been stepping up efforts to reach out to potential customers, since the expiration of rate caps in Maryland that had made energy available at costs below market rates.

Electricity costs have been a volatile issue in Maryland for years. The state deregulated electricity markets in 1999. Then, price caps expired. That led to a 50 percent increase in bills for 1 million Maryland residents in 2007.

When Maryland lawmakers decided to deregulate in 1999, the PSC was directed to implement a customer education program about competition and choices, but it lapsed in 2002 when rate caps were still in effect.

The spike in utility bills led to calls for re-regulation, which was backed by Gov. Martin O'Malley, but the idea has not found support in the House of Delegates. Legislation to return authority lost by the PSC under deregulation would have ended residents' ability to choose providers.

Davis, who chairs House Economic Matters Committee where the re-regulation bill died last year, said the PSC hasn't done much to advertise choice options, because commission members were urging lawmakers to support the re-regulation measure backed by O'Malley.

The PSC, in a statement issued Thursday, said they shouldn't have to do the advertising.

"The commission has decided consistently that electricity suppliers (like any other for-profit business) should bear their own costs, and that ratepayers should not be required to subsidize the suppliers' marketing and other costs," the commission said in a statement.

O'Malley abandoned efforts to pursue the re-regulation measure this year, due to a lack of support in the House. The governor said Thursday he would support education efforts about choosing electricity providers, but he believes the companies that stand to gain should pay for the advertising -- not the state.

"As long as there's not a big cost to it, I've got no problem with that," O'Malley said Thursday.

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