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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Alternate Utility Companies: Check Them Out Carefully

Here at Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church, we just received a visit from a congenial salesperson from an electricity provider that markets themselves as an alternative to Jersey Central Power & Light. She explained that her company, Gateway Energy Services, sends people like her around to check on what JCP&L is charging us, and to see if her employer can get us a better deal by providing a variable rate.

She explained that Gateway provides electricity wholesale to JCP&L and that we can save money by buying power directly from them. The discounts, she explained, would be "locked in" for two years.

While this was going on in the outer office, I started Googling "Gateway Energy Services" on my computer and quickly discovered a whole lot of consumer complaints. Some of them were related to "slamming" - changing a consumer's electricity provider when the consumer has not, in fact, agreed to do so. Others had to do with wildly varying rates, with those increases being absorbed by the consumer, not the company.

I'm no expert on these things, but it looks to me like this company would be inviting us to speculate with them on varying utility rates. Yes, they could save us money, under certain favorable conditions. Yet, if the conditions prove to be unfavorable, we - rather than they - would be assuming most of the financial risk.

I believe this is legal. But I also believe that, as business practices go, it's ethically questionable.

In the meantime, a church staff member had provided the salesperson with our JCP&L account number, which she entered into a tablet computer to show us the savings that would be possible.

We did not, in fact, agree to a change of service providers. We explained that the church staff does not have the power to make that kind of decision and asked the salesperson to provide a written proposal to submit to the appropriate Session committee. She grudgingly went out to her car and came back with an information sheet.

We subsequently called JCP&L and learned from them that, when a request comes to change a customer's service to an alternative energy company, their practice is to send the customer a letter, notifying the customer of the request. The customer then has seven days to get back to JCP&L and cancel the change before it goes into effect.

We'll wait and see what happens, but - based on what we've read about other customers' experience with this and similar alternative-energy companies - I think it's possible that we'll receive one of those JCP&L letters notifying us of a provider change request. We never agreed to that, but as long as the company has our JCP&L account number, they have the capacity to tell JCP&L that we made such a request.

We'll watch the mailbox and, should such a letter arrive, we'll immediately notify JCP&L that we have not authorized a change.

Should your church receive a visit or phone call from such a salesperson, my advice is to make no commitments, get everything in writing and not share with them your utility-company account number.

The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities has a helpful guide to shopping for energy providers, that includes a list of specific questions to ask before making this kind of decision.

Clerks, please pass this column along to your Session's finance or buildings and grounds person.

Caveat emptor....

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