Consumer protections would be key if the state legislature makes any changes to consumer electricity choice regulations, according to the president of PPL Electric Utilities.
But Greg Dudkin said news of variable rates causing spikes in power bills should not discourage consumers from shopping around.
“Customers can save money through choice,” he said Wednesday in an interview at the Central Penn Business Journal offices. “It’s on opportunity for people to save, but any change needs consumer protections.”
Dudkin, who is based in PPL’s Allentown office, was in Harrisburg to meet with members of the Harrisburg Regional Chamber of Commerce to discuss the company’s efforts to increase reliability and lessen the amount of time people are without their lights on. This year, PPL has budgeted about $400 million for operations and maintenance.
It’s part of an information tour of communities across PPL’s 27 counties that Dudkin and PPL officials are conducting. Since before Hurricane Sandy, but especially since then, the company has been taking strides to not only stay ahead on maintenance issues, but also to improve service.
“During Sandy, we interrupted 525,000 customers, which is an incredibly large number,” Dudkin said. “We serve 1.4 million customers. It has a tremendous impact on people’s lives when they lose their electricity and we as an organization take that very seriously.”
The efforts seem to be working. The number of outages was down by about 9 percent in 2013 compared to the previous three years, the company said. For those who did lose power, the average duration was down by 11 percent over the same time.
Also, J.D. Power recently announced the utility ranked highest in business customer satisfaction among large utilities in the eastern United States for the second consecutive year.
Meanwhile, the company’s last rate increase a few years ago amounted to “cents” on customer bills, Dudkin said. Any ongoing increases will hopefully be minimal as well, since the investment in maintenance improves efficiency and cuts costs, he said.
Dana Ferber, PPL’s regional operations director for the Harrisburg and Lancaster regions, joined Dudkin on Wednesday and highlighted some of the work done so far and what is planned for this year.
• Already municipalities in the Carlisle area in Cumberland County were picked to pilot the company’s smart grid technology, where 500 automated switches and other devices were installed to reroute power around outages for 60,000 customers. The company has set aside $20 million to $25 million a year for smart grid projects in other areas.
• The company has installed remote-controlled switches on electric transmission lines so workers can not only figure out where outages are, but are able to reroute power to affected areas before crews are on their way to fix the outage.
• Trees near power lines have been trimmed or removed, reducing the risk of outages. During the winter storm a few weeks ago, power was out to 70,000 people in Lancaster and about 10,000 in Harrisburg in part due to ice that formed on tree limbs, which then snapped and damaged power lines. Paul Wirth, PPL’s senior manager of transmission communications, said had trimming not happened, the damage could have been worse.
• A new line is being built to improve reliability for 4,200 customers in Lower Paxton Township. A transformer upgrade will improve reliability for about 3,200 in Swatara Township. A new substation in Hershey will benefit 2,500 in Derry Township. New lines also will serve 3,400 customers in sections of Perry County.
“But our biggest impact was the tree trimming,” Dudkin said. In 2013, the tree-trimming budget was increased from about $30 million to $60 million for the transmission and distribution lines.
“We’re committed to improving our system’s performance so that, if Sandy ever happens again, far fewer people will get impacted and interrupted,” Dudkin said.
As for the spikes in customer’s electric bills this winter, those who took advantage of a low price-to-compare rate a few months ago did not realize that those rates expired after a period of time and variable rates have taken over. Countless customers have flooded state agencies and power companies with complaints over seeing their bills jump more than 100 percent.
“I’m not sure what the legislature can do about it,” Dudkin said, who noted there were at least 20 companies vying to supply electricity in PPL’s service area. “There still are opportunities for good pricing.”