SHEPHERDSTOWN – Utility companies Potomac Edison and Mon Power say they are working to redress customers grievances following a series of public input meetings to discuss meter reading deficiencies on the part of the FirstEnergy subsidiaries.
[cleeng_content id="980203660" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]The companies heard customers’ comments at two meetings in Shepherdstown and two in Fairmont last week following a Public Service Commission order mandating the hearings and requiring the companies to submit monthly quantitative reports on reading their meters.
Customers have complained that they received a high number of estimated bills last year, which often caused estimation errors to accumulate for months. When they received their first actual reading after the extended period of estimations, many customers were shocked to receive bills that were several times larger than the bills they had received previously.
Scott Surgeoner, a FirstEnergy spokesperson, said the company is working to address local residents’ concerns.
“We do have more meter readers on routes,” Surgeoner said. “We do intend to read meters more frequently. There will be less estimates.”
Karyn Newman of the Coalition for Reliable Power, a persistent critic of FirstEnergy, said customers should not become complacent. She said many FirstEnergy customers continue to complain of similar problems, suggesting that there are still systemic problems.
“We are still encouraging people to send their comments to the Public Service Commission if they had a problem with their bill over the last couple of years,” Newman said.
So far 96 formal letters of protest have been filed with the PSC concerning billing practices.
The PSC-mandated monthly reports show that Potomac Edison went from employing 17 meter readers in August to 16 in September, but increased that number to 19 this month. The company has 16 positions budgeted.
Surgeoner said Potomac Edison hopes to keep its level of staffing at its current level, and to budget in the extra positions.
“We’re going to try to keep those extra meter readers in place and work with the PSC about how best to do that,” he said.
The PSC also ordered the companies to report each month the percentage of their customers who received two or more estimated bills in a row. FirstEnergy is required to check meters at least every other month, absent extraordinary circumstances.
Potomac Edison reports that the proportion of its customers receiving double estimates fell from 7 percent in July to 5 percent in August before dropping to 3 percent in September.
“We intend to meet or exceed the legal standard,” Surgeoner said.
But Newman said the problem will not be solved until the PSC imposes more stringent conditions on FirstEnergy.
“We are still asking the commission to order FirstEnergy – at its own expense, not our expense – to read every meter every month for one full year until they have developed accurate baseline data for future estimates,” she said.
The companies blamed the disruptions on widespread damage to the state’s electrical infrastructure during last year’s derecho and Super Storm Sandy. They say they had to pull meter readers off their normal routes to aid with power restoration, which caused many meters not to be read.
“A lot of problems with out meter reading were issues created by using our meter readers elsewhere during storm restoration,” Surgeoner said. “We believe that we’re going to be able to put most of that behind us.”
But Newman said the public should expect bad estimates on their bills as the winter heating season approaches.
“I think that as we get into the winter heating season we are going to see that these estimates still aren’t right,” she said. “There is something wrong with the way they are coming up with these estimates. I think you are going to see this case heat up again this year just like it did last year.”
FirstEnergy has also asked the Electric Power Research Institute, an industry-funded nonprofit, to examine and improve its estimation techniques. It has yet to report its findings.
Newman said this alone will not solve the problem, since FirstEnergy may be using erroneous bills from last year to calculate estimates of this year’s bill.
“If the base data they use is garbage, no matter how they tweak it, it is still going to be garbage,” she said. “What we get this year is going to be based on what we got last year, and that is what caused this huge problem.”
Surgeoner said the company has not yet formulated plans to prevent meter readers from being pulled off of their routes following major weather events.
“That’s something that we still need to work through,” he said. “These are vital functions in our storm restoration process as well, so we’re going to have to take a look.”