When Texas unleashed a deregulated electricity market on the state’s consumers in 2002, Carol Biedrzycki knew it wasn’t going to be easy on low-income households. “From a public-policy perspective, that could have been one of the worst decisions we ever made,” she says. “Electricity in this society is essential. It affects our health, it affects our safety, and we just let it all go.”
Biedrzycki is the executive director of Texas ROSE (Ratepayers’ Organization to Save Energy), a consumer group that advocates on behalf of low-income Texans for affordable electricity rates and environmentally responsible conservation. She founded the organization in 1992 after spending much of the 1980s working for the Public Utility Commission of Texas and the agency now known as the State Energy Conservation Office.
At the utilities commission, Biedrzycki worked on efficiency planning and rate-change requests. That’s how she first became familiar with the challenges facing Texans who struggle to pay their electricity bills.
“When somebody is without electricity, people don’t always take it as seriously as we should,” she says. “Most people don’t know that if you are receiving any kind of housing subsidy, you automatically lose that benefit if they find out your power was shut off. If they find you don’t have electricity in Texas, they’ll take children from a mother’s home. I’m one of the few people that feels very strongly we should make sure that everyone has access to affordable power.”
On the conservation front, Texas ROSE teamed with Texas Legal Services Center in 1995 to introduce the state’s first utility-funded weatherization program to help reduce heating and cooling costs for low-income residents by improving energy efficiency. (Today, every private utility in the state dedicates at least 10 percent of its budget to conservation measures.) In 2001—during a particularly sweltering summer—Biedrzycki petitioned utilities to institute the state’s first moratorium on utility disconnections during emergency weather conditions. That move eventually led the state to prohibit disconnections during extreme-heat advisories.
Since Texas ROSE’s founding, the state’s electricity landscape has undergone profound change, primarily in 2002, when Texas deregulated the electricity industry, leaving residents subject to higher rates. Consumer complaints about service have risen in deregulation’s wake as well. In response, Biedrzycki and Texas ROSE have fought for important consumer protections.
Even before deregulation, Biedrzycki and Texas ROSE helped introduce the LITE-UP TEXAS program, which is designed to help low-income individuals reduce their monthly electricity bills by providing discounts during the year’s hottest months. The program has attracted controversy over the years for the Legislature’s redirection of program funds, but about $800 million is scheduled for distribution to program participants between now and 2016. One of Biedrzycki’s main goals is to renew the program post-2016.
Biedrzycki’s biggest criticisms of the state’s current retail electricity sector are that companies aren’t transparent about their services and that the state doesn’t do a great job of protecting consumers. In June, Biedrzycki helped launch an investigation into the electricity retailer Direct Energy after a former customer-service representative for the company called her to suggest that Direct Energy was using deceptive marketing campaigns for prepaid utility plans to take advantage of low-income consumers.
“It’s a product where they tell people, ‘You pay up-front, you pay as much as you want, when you want,’” Biedrzycki says. Customers misunderstand and think that means they can pay whatever portion of their bill they care to, whenever they like.
Biedrzycki says the state government plainly favors the industry over consumers, making it difficult to hold companies accountable.
“I feel like my work has gotten harder instead of easier,” she says. “The state government has set itself up to be protective of the industry rather than the consumer, and there are additional roadblocks to getting information.”
But she won’t be giving up the fight anytime soon.
“We’ve said to this industry, ‘You can charge [customers] as much as you can get them to pay,’” she says. “I’d like to see the industry re-regulated. This is a basic service that needs to be provided to everyone.”