By Friday, despite the rain, there finally was happy news for the Lehigh Valley area from the National Weather Service, which said temperatures in coming days would reach the 60s and would not drop into freezing territory at all — just like spring.
That was meaningful to people who heat homes with electricity and who switched from traditional suppliers to some of the alternative suppliers under the state's 1996 and 2010 deregulation of the electric utility system, billed as a plan to give consumers a "choice" that would boost competition.
Apologists for alternative suppliers blamed a cold winter for obscene increases in monthly electric bills for many Pennsylvanians, but an "Electric Choice Public Forum" hosted the other day by state Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, revealed more sinister circumstances.
While some alternative supply companies functioned respectably, it was obvious that others suckered customers into contracts with all the guile of three-card monte or shell game flimflammers.
There were complaints they used telemarketing techniques to pitch variable-rate contracts, the main cause of steep increases in monthly electric bills, and then proceeded with binding "verbal contracts," even when consumers insisted they'd made no such agreement, verbal or otherwise.
Other hucksters, it was reported at the forum, targeted vulnerable senior citizens at community centers or church events to lock them into variable-rate contracts with promises of cheap electricity. Instead, monthly bills soared, with no quick way out.
Boscola planned the forum at Palmer Township's Chrin Community Center after introducing legislation nine days ago to provide some protections.
Senate Bill 1297 shortens the time it takes for consumers to switch away from such contracts, and requires suppliers to notify customers when a variable-rate contract is expected to result in an increase of 50 percent or more in a single month.
It also requires suppliers to send 45-day and 15-day advance notices to customers on fixed-rate plans (far less volatile) before automatically switching to variable-rate plans on the day the fixed-rate contract expires, and it requires clear consent before a variable-rate contract can go into effect.
I attended Boscola's forum, which featured presentations by the state Public Utility Commission, the state Office of Consumer Advocate, PPL and an alternative supply company, First Energy.
The major offering from First Energy's representative, Marc Troutman, was the hackneyed explanation, "Energy costs did go up because it did get cold."
(It got cold for people who stayed with traditional "default" service provided directly by utility companies, too, but they did not see such extreme cost increases.)
The PUC's Dave Hixson said his agency was swamped with complaints, although most problems involve actions over which the PUC no longer has any real control. "Nearly 9,000 calls since Feb. 1," he said. "There's some frustrated folks out there."
Going by comments from the audience, "frustrated" is an understatement.
Joseph and Barbara Greco of Nesquehoning said they previously got electricity from PPL through a standard and regulated default system, but were promised by their new company that their rate of 8.7 cents per kilowatt hour could go down to 6.7 cents. "I thought that sounds pretty good," said Joseph. Then a monthly bill of $514 shot up to more than $900, and then $1,671.64 by February, with the kilowatt rate now at 22 cents.
"They said, 'It is what it is,'" Barbara said she was told when she called to complain.
"My rate," said Gary DiPasquale of Easton, "went from 7.5 cents to 47 cents."
Such incidents all involved variable-rate contracts, which can offer very cheap electricity to start, but then can change quickly. "A variable rate can change hourly, daily or monthly," said Hixson, explaining that it depends on the contract, over which the PUC has little control.
Kristine Herr-Watt of PPL said that consumers who opt for safer fixed-rate contracts can wind up with variable rate deals even when they insist they never agreed to them. "But they were switched — what we call slammed," she said. "There are all kinds of horror stories out there."
The state's worst horror story, hopefully, has been averted.
As I have discussed before, one of Boscola's colleagues, state Sen. Bob Mensch, R-Montgomery, previously introduced legislation that would deprive everyone in Pennsylvania of the traditional default option, meaning everybody would have to switch to an alternative supplier.
When it became obvious what the impact of that would be, based on the experiences of many of the 2.5 million Pennsylvanians who already switched voluntarily, Mensch beat a hasty retreat and withdrew his atrocity.
The Boscola bill, as far as I can tell, is genuinely aimed at helping consumers, but we can only hope it moves forward, undiluted, which is not necessarily likely in Harrisburg, where legislation always has a better chance when organized special interests and their money are behind it.
In the meantime, enjoy the milder weather with the anticipation of turning off the "heat" option on your heat pump.
Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and FridaysCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun