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Persistence pays off for rural Texans besieged by sky-high power prices

After struggling to pay sky-high power line rates for more than three years, thousands of rural Texans are set to get relief.

Hugh and Nancy Raney in front of a pair of fields, one currently fallow, on their farm near Big Spring in January 2016. The couple had to stop farming part of their land when running the electric pumps to get well water to the fields became too expensive.

After struggling to pay sky-high power line rates for more than three years, thousands of rural Texans are set to get relief.

Sharyland Utilities, which charges the highest power delivery rates in Texas, announced a deal on Monday that should substantially ease the burden for roughly 54,000 customers scattered across North, West and West Central Texas.

The tiny utility signed an agreement with Oncor Electric Delivery to exchange assets and operations. The proposal, which requires approval by the Public Utility Commission of Texas, would transform Sharyland ratepayers into Oncor customers. As the state’s largest electric transmission utility, Oncor charges the lowest rates. 

Customers were told to expect rates slashed by 40 percent.

“We’re pretty excited about it, for sure,” said Nancy Raney in a phone interview as she fed bleating goats and sheep on her farm near Big Spring. “It’s like the little guy taking on corporate America and actually succeeding.”

Raney, whose family saw their farm’s monthly electric bills grow by thousands of dollars under Sharyland's service, was part of a contingent of struggling customers who peppered the utility, state regulators and state lawmakers with complaints over the years — including emails, letters and in-person testimony — over their predicament: the utility's residential rates were more than twice the state average, which Sharyland attributed to a host of challenges, the biggest being that it has too few customers scattered over too many miles.

While those customers — like most Texans — could choose their retail electric providers on the competitive power market, they were stuck with Sharyland’s pricey power lines.

A private Facebook group for aggrieved customers grew to more 2,100 members over the years, with folks swapping pocketbook horror stories and trading advice. But following a host of public meetings, a Public Utility Commission investigation and a rate challenge at the commission, plenty of Sharylanders cheered this week's news.

“About two years, I tell you, of writing letters and all. We’re happy to see a resolution,” said Janey Burke, one of 60 parishioners at Champion Baptist Church in Roscoe, which saw its monthly utility bills soar hundreds of dollars, to more than $800, despite a frantic push to conserve energy.

Sharyland and Oncor said they expect to file their proposal to the Public Utility Commission soon, and approval could take as long as six months. 

Sharyland is asking the commission to approve an interim rate reduction — about 10 percent for the average resident — within the next 60 days. Sharyland said it also poured $150,000 into a charitable fund, administered by The Dallas Foundation, to assist places of worship that were hit particularly hard by rate hikes.

"This transaction is the right thing to do for our customers and for the communities we serve,” David A. Campbell, CEO of Sharyland Utilities, said in a statement Monday.

Brian Lloyd, executive director of the Public Utility Commission, called the deal, which was part of a settlement to end a rate challenge at the agency, a “landmark” that will “provide substantial rate relief to Sharyland customers by rolling them into the much larger customer base of Oncor.”

In an email to Raney, Lloyd credited her and other persistent Sharyland customers for this week’s results.

“I know you have had to learn more about utility rate-making than any sane person should every have to,” Lloyd wrote. “I want you to know – and I hope you are proud — that your efforts to bring attention to this issue was one of the main things that generated all the creative thinking and hard work that went into this solution.”

Disclosure: Oncor has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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