Working at PointClickSwitch: Jason Schwartzberg, president,… (Barbara Haddock Taylor )
Whenever Allyn Simon thought she needed to get a better deal on her electricity bill, she would visit various Maryland energy suppliers' websites, take notes and sometimes call customer service. The process could take hours.
But the 56-year-old North Baltimore homemaker's bargain-hunting was made easier with one website: PointClickSwitch.com. The site allows residential and commercial energy customers to do what its name implies — compare prices between energy providers and switch their bill over the Internet.
"I used to periodically sit down and go through every company's rates, and it takes a lot of time," said Simon, whose winter electric heating bill used to top $1,700 a month, and now hovers around $1,200 a month. "With PointClickSwitch, all I have to do is look at what they've done."
As Marylanders brace for winter, many soon will start hunting for ways to save on their energy bills — and that includes looking closely at the cost per kilowatt hour on their electric bill. Across the country, online energy clearinghouses such as PointClickSwitch, Save On Energy and Power 2 Switch have emerged to help people choose providers and to make a little money.
PointClickSwitch was founded two years ago by a trio of real estate development professionals in Baltimore who saw a need to offer a website that allows easy price comparison — and bill-switching — for Maryland residents after the market was deregulated.
"I thought to myself: 'This is awesome. Everyone needs electricity. How do people go about finding the best rate?' " said co-founder Phil Croskey.
Thanks to Maryland's deregulated energy market, residents can find cheaper energy suppliers on the Internet, though consumer advocacy experts caution that people should read the fine print of any contracts they sign.
The Maryland Public Service Commission licenses companies such as PointClickSwitch.com as brokers, and requires them to post an insurance bond. Brokers have come and gone over the years and the energy industry has had its share of poor practices, such as "cramming" — adding extra charges — and "slamming" — switching customers to their service involuntarily, according to Maryland regulatory officials.
But PointClickSwitch does none of that, Croskey said. His site, he said, helps people compare prices and switch energy suppliers.
"So many markets are just starting to be unleashed," Croskey said. "Now you're beginning to see true choice in the marketplace."
Such a site is a step beyond what Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and the Maryland Public Service Commission currently offer consumers. BGE offers a site that links to all the licensed energy suppliers, while the PSC offers price listings from the suppliers.
"We have a long history of trying to make it easy for consumers to compare prices," said Douglas R.M. Nazarian, the commission chairman. "The concept has been out there for a long time and is pretty central to the whole notion that you have an opportunity to buy from wherever you want."
PointClickSwitch makes switching as easy as a few steps on the Web. The company, formally known as Maryland Energy Advisors LLC, aims to become the "PriceLine of energy," said Croskey, referring to a popular consumer website that allows people to comparison shop for airline flights. Croskey said that 16 states have energy deregulation, with more likely to come in the future.
Maryland's energy market was deregulated in 1999, which allowed consumers and businesses to choose their energy supplier, but not their distributor.
By law, utilities, which distribute electricity to homes, are required to offer a baseline level of service and pricing to customers, and can act as both supplier and distributor of the energy.
Most consumers still pay for the supply and distribution of their energy from these so-called "standard offer service" providers, namely BGE in the Baltimore area and Pepco Energy Services in the Washington area.
For years, consumers were slow to switch to a different supplier. But the pace appears to be quickening.
Since 2009, the proportion of households that have switched energy suppliers has climbed from 3 percent to 22 percent this year, said Paula Carmody, head of the Maryland Office of People's Counsel, an independent state agency that acts as a consumer watchdog.
Carmody cautioned customers to watch the fine print in energy contracts, such as the length of the contract, extra monthly fees or high cancellation fees if the consumer wishes to switch early.
"We do recommend people check out our website as a guide, even if they are checking out these other websites, like PointClickSwitch," Carmody said. "There are other websites they can use for guidance."