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PUC Staff Supports Waiver To Allow Retail Supplier To Enroll Customers Via Chat, Subject To Additional Conditions

August 2, 2019

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Copyright 2010-19
Reporting by Paul Ring •

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Staff of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio have recommended that PUCO approve, with additional conditions proposed by Staff, an application from Constellation NewEnergy for various rule waivers to allow Constellation to enroll retail customers in Ohio through an online, interactive process, or "chat".

Constellation's application for waivers to allow enrollments via chat had been exclusively first reported by (story here)

Constellation is already using such functionality for enrollments in several other states

As more fully discussed in our prior story, Constellation in its petition detailed the specific process and disclosures for its chat enrollments. In brief, the chat representative will respond to the customer’s questions, as well as provide specific disclosures. A date/time-stamped transcript of the online chat conversation will be recorded and saved to reflect that the customer is enrolling in the Constellation competitive service. The chat will include a question and the customer’s acknowledgment that the customer is the customer of record or is authorized to switch for the customer of record, and that they are consenting to enroll with Constellation. Specific disclosures and steps are detailed in our prior story (click here)

Staff noted that the disclosures and acknowledgment proposed by Constellation for the chat process appear to most closely follow the rules for telephonic enrollments

"Staff believes that the application does not go far enough to comply with all of the rules that Ohio Adm.Code 4901:1-21-6(D)(2) requires of telephonic enrollment for electric service," as Staff said that the application does not provide how chat enrollment would mimic the following telephonic enrollment requirements:

1. That the chat transcript must include the CRES provider's identity and the exact purpose of the chat

2. That the chat transcript must include a statement and the customer's acknowledgment that the CRES provider is not the customer's current electric utility company and that the customer may choose to remain with the electric utility company or enroll with another CRES provider

3. That the chat transcript must include a toll-free telephone number the customer can call to cancel the contract

4. That the chat transcript must include, if applicable, a request for and the customer's provision of the customer's electric utility account number

5. That the chat transcript must include a request for and the customer's provision of the customer's mailing address.

6. That the CRES provider shall provide a copy of the chat transcript to the customer, commission, or the staff within three business days of a request.

"Staff believes that all of these requirements of telephonic enrollment under 4901:l-21-06(D)(2) should be followed for interactive chat enrollments, not just those proposed in the Applicant's application. Similarly, for enrollment in natural gas service via Applicant's proposed interactive chat process, Staff also believes that all of the requirements of Ohio 4901:1-29-06(E) should be followed, not just those proposed in the Applicant's application," Staff said

"It is worth noting that because telephone enrollment for natural gas service requires independent third-party verification -- unlike telephonic enrollment for electric service -- Staff believes that if the Commission were to grant the waiver, the requirement of third-party verification for natural gas telephonic enrollment might need to be waived for natural gas chat enrollments," Staff said

"In conclusion, Staff recommends that the Commission grant the waiver in this Application, with the condition that the waiver provide that all requirements of telephonic enrollment, Ohio Adm.Code 4901:1-21-06(D)(2) and 4901:1-29-06(E), must be followed for interactive chat enrollment, minus the requirement that third-party verification must occur for natural gas chat enrollment," Staff said

Staff also recommended that the wavier be clearly limited to only enrollments as a result of an interactive chat on the applicant's website

Furthermore, Staff recommended that the waiver shall expire when the PUC adopts new rules governing marketing and enrollment under Case No. 17-1843-EL-ORD and 17-1847-GA-ORD.

The Ohio Consumers' Counsel said that Constellation's petition should be denied as the OCC said that, among other things, Constellation's proposal, "removes a key consumer protection -- independent third-party verification."

"Although Constellation proposes to use the Internet for changing consumers’ energy supplier, its proposal is akin to the process for changing consumers’ energy supplier through telephonic means. In Internet enrollment, consumers merely fill out an online form without any direct contact with the marketer’s representatives. 'Chat' technology, however, allows the marketer’s representatives to engage in a real-time 'conversation' with consumers. This is similar to consumers speaking by telephone with marketer representatives," OCC said

"Because of the similarity between telephonic enrollment and the use of 'chat' technology to enroll customers, enrollment by 'chat' technology should have the same independent third-party verification requirements as telephonic enrollment. Consumers need this protection and the PUCO should require it," OCC said

Case No. 18-0604-GE-WVR

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