Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Business

PSC will audit Duke Energy's handling of extended billing charges but suggests all is well

TALLAHASSEE — The chairman of the state Public Service Commission ordered an audit of Duke Energy Florida's handling of changes to its meter-reading routes and promised a review of the policy that led to extra charges on some customers' bills while the utility revamped its system.

The billing issue angered many Duke Energy customers in recent weeks, prompting a flood of concerned calls to this newspaper, a Duke apology, and enough outcry to state legislators to prompt Thursday's PSC meeting.

Art Graham, the commission's chairman, said during a public meeting that he thinks Duke resolved the most critical concerns about the meter issue in its decision to credit affected customers an average of $5.62 as a remedy for the extra charges.

"Staff will be auditing to make sure they've gotten all the I's dotted and T's crossed on this issue," Graham said.

But Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, questioned whether the commission or even the Legislature needs to go further by passing a law to protect consumers.

"What are we going to do to make sure this advance billing doesn't continue in the future?" asked Dean, the lone person to speak during Thursday's PSC meeting, originally billed as a Q&A session with Duke about the extra charges to customers. "I had to read about it first in the (Tampa Bay) Times. If … there's something we can do, don't put it off. I'm willing and ready."

Duke says it is making changes to its meter-reading routes to make them more efficient. Those changes led the utility to temporarily extend as many as 267,000 customers' billing cycles, typically a month, by as many as 12 days. Customer bills revealed additional charges in some cases of $100 or more for the extended days and, for some, the additional days bumped them into a higher rate class.

That's because Duke charges customers $11.34 for every 100 kilowatt hours of usage up to 1,000 kilowatt hours. Above that, it charges $13.70 for every 100 kilowatt hours. That's before taxes and other government fees.

After angry customers complained about their bills, state lawmakers — sending an unusual series of terse letters to the PSC — called on the commission to intervene.

Graham responded by asking Duke to attend today's meeting to answer questions about the meter route changes.

Last week, Duke then offered the average $5.62 credit.

"I did send a letter to the president of Duke Energy on this issue," Graham said during Thursday's meeting. "I got the response I was looking for. They promised it was an unforeseeable mistake. I think it is quite evident because one person spoke, this might address the issue."

"The resolution was reached a week ago," said Sterling Ivey, a Duke spokesman. "We're happy to report back to the commission as they audit and as the reroute continues this year."

But some insisted the $5.62 adjustment was inadequate.

"Chairman Graham, I understand based on the letter you sent me this afternoon and a phone call from commission staff to my assistant that you consider this issue resolved," Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, wrote in a letter shared with the Times before the meeting. "Please be aware that I am still hearing from my constituents that the refunds being offered by Duke Energy are lower than what they should be, even when taking longer billing periods and the summer heat into consideration."

But at Thursday's PSC meeting, all the recent concern over Duke Energy's billing was nowhere to be found.

In the end, Dean stood alone at the podium to speak on the issue at 10 a.m. on a Thursday in Tallahassee. That's not a likely time and place to provoke much public participation.

And there were virtually no questions asked of Duke Energy.

"I do want to acknowledge that the company did appear to have jumped right on it," said Commissioner Lisa Edgar. "I appreciate all of that. I do understand, I believe, that a review has taken place and will be ongoing."

Commissioner Eduardo Balbis said "gray areas" in the policy need to be reviewed, "so we don't find ourselves in the situation" again.

Contact Ivan Penn at [email protected] or (727) 892-2332. Follow @Consumers_Edge.

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Published: 01/16/18