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Ambit Energy - Star-Telegram - Higher rates, profit for TXU

Despite losing more than 9 percent of its North Texas customers, 2005 rate increases helped TXU Corp. raise its profit to $1.7 billion compared with a loss of $386 million in 2004.

The year-to-year comparison is skewed by special charges in 2004 related to TXU’s corporate restructuring. But the company expanded its operating earnings last year to $1.6 billion, up from $887 million in 2004.

The improved 2005 results were boosted by rate increases of more than 23 percent during the year. TXU got an additional 12 percent rate increase Jan. 1. The increases, approved by the Public Utility Commission of Texas, were sought on the basis of rising natural-gas costs.

The former utility’s fourth-quarter 2005 net income totaled $356 million, or 74 cents per share, from a one-time restructuring-related loss of $625 million in the fourth quarter of 2004. TXU shares (ticker: TXU) closed down 57 cents to $50.87.

TXU Chairman John Wilder said he was pleased with the 2005 results but noted the loss of customers and said, “Ninety percent of our customers know the market is deregulated and that they can fire us any day they want to, and our customers are switching more often than we’d like. We just have to fight for them in the marketplace.”

Wilder has responded with efforts to improve customer service, including shorter waits at TXU call centers, as well as a frequent-flier-like rewards program that gives TXU customers credits for merchandise and services if they stay with the company. Wilder said that more than 200,000 TXU customers have signed up with the rewards program.

Still, the company’s rate increases seem to be what customers are noticing most.

Nancy Swartz of Arlington said, “There are a lot of older people in my neighborhood, and these higher rates are working a real hardship on them. A little less profit and a belief in customer service would go a long way for TXU.”

TXU has taken criticism from consumer groups in recent weeks because natural-gas prices have fallen to below $9 per thousand cubic feet, significantly below the $11.50 benchmark used to set the two latest rate increases. The benchmark rate is set on a 45-day average, which was taken during the September-October period after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita when outages in the Gulf of Mexico drove natural-gas prices to all-time highs.

Consumer groups have called on the PUC to force TXU to rescind some of the latest rate increases as no longer necessary.

Commission Chairman Paul Hudson noted at a recent meeting that he was concerned about consumers “that ended up at a ratcheted rate from a time period that occurred in the fall of 2005.”

Hudson suggested that the PUC might try to impose some type of regulation on rates at the end of this year, when the regulated price to beat is scheduled to expire and TXU will be free to set its rates as it chooses.

Wilder, asked by analysts about Hudson’s ideas, said he thought the concept of a last-minute rate imposed by the PUC at the end of this year was “unlawful.”

“We believe that the market should sort this out,” Wilder said.

Consumers aren’t getting much help from the unregulated competitors in the TXU market. The PUC Web site that carries rivals’ prices, www.%powertochoose.com, showed discounts Thursday no larger than 8 percent below TXU’s rate: $150 per 1,000 kilowatts. Reliant Energy of Houston, the largest of the rivals, was priced just 1 percent below TXU.

TXU’s statistics showed that its residential customer base dropped from 1.95 million at the end of 2004 to 1.77 million customers Dec. 31, a period in which TXU’s electric rates rose a little more than 23% percent.

TXU’s total customer base, including residential and commercial, totaled 2.32 million Dec. 31, down from 2.53 million a year earlier.

TXU reported about 2.6 million customers at the beginning of 2002 when the Texas market was deregulated. Since then, its electricity rate has risen from 8.4 cents per kilowatt hour in January 2002 to the current 15 cents per kilowatt hour.

Despite the increased rates during 2005, Wilder said, TXU’s retail electric subsidiary “made virtually nothing last year.” The bulk of TXU’s profit in 2005 came from electricity generation and transmission.

“We think retail margins will begin to improve this year and next, but it still will be a long climb to the profitability level we’d like to seeFree Reprint Articles,” Wilder said.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Smoky is a regular contributing editor of Energy Consultants, Inc.  As Founding Consultants of Ambit Energy in Dallas, TX,  Smoky shares information about how to save money and lower your energy bills.  With Ambit Energy's move into the New York energy market there are now more people to show how to lower their energy bills



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