Get Educated on Energy

Do you know what you’re paying for your electricity? If you said no, you have a lot of company. When Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports, surveyed Virginia residents on their electricity costs, 98 percent of customers had no idea how much they pay per kilowatt-hour (the standard unit of measure). And unfortunately, it’s not unusual for large utility companies to try to take advantage of consumers’ lack of knowledge.

Like most states, Virginia is now debating how to implement the Clean Power Plan, a national initiative to reduce pollution from power plants while expanding theuse of clean, renewable energy. States have flexibility in how they achieve the goals, and if done right, the plan should lower electricity costs.

According to a recent study from the Georgia Institute of Technology, states could implement the Clean Power Plan in a way that would save the average household more than $160 per year on electricity bills by 2030 and $1,868 over the next 15 years.

But Dominion Virginia Power, one of the largest utilities in the country, is lobbying hard to build expensive natural gas plants and a massive $19 billion nuclear reactor. The problem: The utility company is ignoring more cost-effective solutions, such as expanding energy-efficiency plans and investing in affordable renewable-energy options, such as solar and wind power. The reactor and plants would result in big profits for the utility company, but residents would be left footing the bill for more expensive, dirtier energy.

CR opposes Dominion’s spendthrift plan and has sent a team of advocates to educate and support residents in the Old Dominion State.

To learn how you can improve the efficiency of your home and to find programs offered by your state, check out the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency at dsireusa.org. You can also go to our website, at CR.org, and search for “Energy Efficiency Guide,” which will lead to instructions on how to reduce your carbon footprint and save money.

Improving Prepaid Cards

Although prepaid cards look and work much like debit cards, they don’t require the user to have a bank account, making them very attractive to younger people and anyone who doesn’t have an account. The downside is that in the event of fraud or a transaction error, prepaid cards haven’t had the legal protections that come with debit cards. Until now.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently rolled out new rules for prepaid cards. The cards will now come with up-front fee disclosure, fraud protection, strong dispute-resolution rights, and free and easy access to account information.

For more than a decade, Consumer Reports has been pushing for rules like these, and their adoption marks a victory for the growing number of consumers who are turning to prepaid cards—an estimated one in four U.S. households relies on them.

See which of these products fared best in our ratings at CR.org/prepaidcardratings.

Protecting Your Privacy

For most of us, internet service isn’t a luxury anymore. It’s almost as essential to our lives as running water. But that kind of dependency can be dangerous. That’s in part because your broadband provider gains a unique, all-encompassing window on your behavior—your personal habits, health problems, political views, financial struggles, and more. Up till now, your broadband company has been able to use that access to profile you in ways that are highly intrusive, and even share your information or sell it to others.

This past October, after months of deliberation and comments from the public (including Consumers Union), the Federal Communications Commission approved the first-ever rules to protect the privacy of broadband consumers. Under these safeguards, your provider must get your consent before sharing your browsing data and other private information with advertisers and related third parties. It must also notify you about the types of information it collects, the entities it shares the info with, and how it uses anything it gathers.

We think these new rules are strong, fair, and very necessary.

Tom Wheeler, the FCC chairman under whom these rules were adopted, recently visited CR’s headquarters in Yonkers, N.Y., to tour our labs and discuss the new protections guarding consumers’ rights.

“The bottom line is that the information you share with your broadband provider is yours,” Wheeler said. “With the FCC’s new privacy protections, you will have the right to determine how it’s used.”

We couldn’t agree more with his assessment, and we support the new solution.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the January 2017 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.