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Akst: Following up on utility prices

After this column appears each week, I check online for comments. It’s great if somebody says something complimentary that sparks a deeper discussion.

But the main reason I check comments is to help calm my fear (which I’ve had since the mid-1980s) that I wrote something factually incorrect or woefully distorted. This isn’t false modesty; it’s cultivated caution.

Anyway, last week’s column about Sycamore residents having to choose new energy suppliers (or be locked in with ComEd for 12 months) left some readers dissatisfied.

One suggested that the Daily Chronicle research average usage rate per resident and analyze options for consumers. Another was disappointed that the column “brings the reader to the edge of the cliff and leaves them hanging.”

My goal was to point out the dizzying array of choices and options that face consumers. I’m not qualified to make recommendations on choosing an energy supplier.

Still, it’s uncool to blather on and give no help, so this week I’m taking a shot at helping residential customers understand their options.

1. Visit the Plug In Illinois Web site, www.

2. Ignore everything about Ameren Illinois. Everybody in the Daily Chronicle’s circulation area is a ComEd customer, according to the maps.

3. Decide whether you want to choose a retail electric supplier or ComEd’s residential real-time pricing program. With this program, the website says, “prices are based on the actual real-time hourly market price of electricity during the day and customers are notified when real-time prices are high or are expected to be high so they can respond in real time and shift the use of major appliances to lower-priced hours. While savings are not guaranteed, customers can manage electricity costs under real-time pricing by shifting use of electricity from hours when prices are higher to hours when prices are lower. To participate in a residential real-time pricing program, customers without a smart meter must have a meter installed that is capable of recording hourly usage.”

That feels about 1,000 times too complicated, so I think most people will choose a new retail electric supplier. In that case …

4. Click “Compare Offers Now” at the top of the Web page. Scroll down to “Select Your Utility Service Area,” choose ComEd, and click “Compare Offers Now.”

5. You have entered the rabbit hole. This interactive grid is where consumers choose which options are most important. It could be cost per kilowatt-hour, variable vs. fixed rates per kwh, source of energy (many companies tout renewable), length of term, early termination fees, special offers … the list goes on. My advice is to pick three or four of the deals that seem best, then click through each offer to get the terms spelled out.

You’ll need your most recent ComEd bill, and I would guess about one to two hours of time for a reasonably considered choice.

How do you know if you’re choosing a reputable company?

Unless you have better-than-average research skills and lots of spare time, you don’t. I’ve never heard of many of these companies. However, at the bottom of the “Compare Offers Now” page is a hyperlink to “Customer Complaint Statistics.”

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. He also serves as a board member for the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association, You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter @JasonAkst.

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