Facing a 30-percent rate increase on Jan. 1, nearly 117,000 PPL Electric Utilities customers have already run for the exit.

More than 8 percent of PPL Electric's 1.4 million customers have opted to buy discounted power from alternative suppliers, said Ryan Hill, the spokesman. The total includes 100,000 residential customers.

The end of state-mandated rate caps for the Allentown utility is expected to be a major test for deregulation in Pennsylvania. Customers of Philadelphia's Peco Energy Co. won't be able to shop around until the end of 2010.

PPL is is expecting many more customers to opt for alternative suppliers after Jan. 1, when the competition for customers is officially open. Already, five retail power suppliers are licensed to sell power to PPL customers, and they are offering discounts of about 10 percent to those who sign up for a year.

With the end of PPL's monopoly on Jan. 1, rate caps will come off and the utility's default rate will go up about 30 percent. The rate is based up power-supply auctions PPL held over the past three years. PPL's rate for power will be 10.448 cents per kilowatt hour.

Alternative suppliers are able to buy power at current wholesale rates, which have come down this year in the recession. They are offering rates on Jan. 1 ranging from 9.38 cents to 9.52 cents per kilowatt hour for customers who sign up for a year. A customer using 1,000 kilowatt hours a month would save about $10.

PPL Electric Utilities will continue to be the sole distribution company in its territory, which covers all or parts of 29 counties in eastern and central Pennsylvania, stretching from the New York border to the Maryland line. It includes parts of Chester, Montgomery and Bucks counties, as well as Harrisburg, Lancaster, Williamsport and the Lehigh Valley.

PPL will continue to handle billing and customer service for the suppliers, and it will collect an additional fee of about three cents per kilowatt hour from all customers for distribution charges.

A comparison of the suppliers and their rates is available from the Pennsylvania Office of Consumer Advocate:

Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947 or amaykuth@phillynews.com.