RANSHAW - James Jones was expecting a higher electric bill because of recent cold weather.

But $1,881.50?

"I couldn't believe it when I saw that," Jones said. "That might be the biggest bill I've ever seen."

Jones is among the consumers who signed up for a variable-rate plan for the generation and transmission of his electricity and ended up with an outrageous bill.

Jones, who owns a double-home and said he's careful about his energy use, said he shopped around before choosing Pennsylvania Gas and Electric, which, at the time, offered a rate lower than PPL at 7.4 cents per kilowatt hour (kwh). Plus, the company offered a $50 Visa gift card if Jones remained a customer for a year.

But when the fixed rate expired on Jones' contract after what he thinks was a year, the rate jumped to 28 cents per kwh for January - a nearly 400 percent increase.

At 7.4 cents, his bill for January would have been $483.81.

Not the only one

Jones is not alone. State Attorney General Kathleen Kane, the Public Utility Commission (PUC) and the state consumer advocate's office are handling about 1,500 complaints accusing suppliers of price gouging and other questionable business practices.

The PUC said, however, that as long as electricity suppliers act in accordance with their contract, consumers have little recourse.

Richard Hudson, state chairman of the Retail Energy Supply Association, told the Scranton Times-Tribune the price spikes could be attributed to the market and cold weather, not any wrongdoing.

However, wholesale prices have remained stable, as evidenced by PPL's price to compare, the standard for energy prices. Effective Saturday, the price for the next three months was set at 8.75 cents per kwh, which is unchanged from the previous three months.

The PUC told Pittsburgh's Action News 4 that Pennsylvania Gas and Electric is named in half of all the complaints it has received about high electric bills this winter.

'Buyer beware'

Teri MacBride, PPL Electric regional community relations director, said the utility company encourages customers to shop for electricity, but it's a matter of "buyer beware." The option for Pennsylvanians to shop for an electricity supplier has been available since the industry was deregulated in 2010.

"There are 670,000 PPL consumers who have shopped for electricity, the highest percentage of any company in the state," MacBride said.

She encourages everyone to use the PUC's site, PaPowerSwitch.com, to shop for energy. Consumers should beware that a good deal now may not stay that way with a variable-rate plan, she said.

Bill reduced

Jones, like other consumers, still pays PPL for all of his electricity charges. He pays on the budget plan, so his $1,881.50 bill will be spread out.

Still, he has spoken to someone at Pennsylvania Gas and Electric and has made some progress. He will be billed for February at the original 7.4-cent rate and the company said they'd send a $610 settlement check to put toward his huge January outlay.

"I will wait and see about that," said Jones, who hasn't yet received the check.

But he has also switched suppliers after finding one on the PUC site that offers a fixed rate.

"My advice to anyone shopping is to look for a company with fixed rates and no cancelation fees," he said.