Duke Energy Florida announced Wednesday that it would issue a credit to customers adversely affected by a change to its meter reading system that led the utility to charge higher electricity rates to some customers.
"We apologize for any hardships and confusion we have caused our customers, and we will make this right," said Alex Glenn, state president of Duke Energy Florida. "We will continue to work with impacted customers until all credits have been issued. We are also taking steps to ensure that this does not happen again."
Duke has been under fire since a Tampa Bay Times report last week detailed how a change in its meter-reading process has hurt some customers.
Duke 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. But above that, it charges $13.70 for every 100 kilowatt hours. That's before taxes and other government fees.
Duke Energy customer Marie D. Cox of St. Petersburg noticed the higher charges on her bill. Given the circumstances, Cox said Wednesday, she couldn't be happier that Duke reversed its decision.
"It's the very least that they could do after trying to grab millions of dollars from people who couldn't afford it," said Cox, a mathematician who examines her expenses using spreadsheets and caught the higher rate she was charged on her electric bill. "I think it's only right. It was egregious. It was a pure money grab."
The Public Service Commission had asked Duke to appear before the commission Sept. 4 to answer questions about the meter controversy. In light of Duke's new decision to credit affected customers, the commission on Wednesday was still evaluating whether it was necessary to hold the meeting with Duke.
"The intended purpose of the (meter reading) project is well within the good business practices we expect from utilities, but the unintended consequences were not," said PSC chairman Art Graham. "The negative billing effects on some customers had to be fixed, and with the action announced today, Duke Energy Florida has stepped up and fixed it.
"The Public Service Commission requires utilities to be responsive to the issues we raise on behalf of the public," Graham added. "Duke has moved to answer the concerns very quickly, as we expected them to do."
PSC rules allow for the billing process that Duke used, but a firestorm of criticism from ratepayers and state lawmakers prompted a reversal of the charges.
Charles Rehwinkel, deputy state public counsel, who represents consumers before the PSC, said that because the commission rule allows Duke to use the tactic it employed, the utility did not have to give the credit.
"Given that it's allowed under the rules, I commend them for refunding the customers," Rehwinkel said. "It's the right thing to do."
State lawmakers, who said the meter policy was "discriminatory" and not "moral," praised Duke's decision, though some still say more needs to be done to protect consumers.
"I'm obviously very happy that they made that decision," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, Pinellas County's most powerful legislator. "That's what I asked them to do. It indicates that they have a conscience and that they're still trying to be a good corporate citizens."
Latvala said he spoke with Glenn Aug. 21 about the meter charges and had hoped for a resolution sooner, but "I'm not going to pound on them, if they did the right thing in the end."
Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, said he believes the PSC rule needs to be changed to ensure this type of charge does not happen in the future.
"This is outrageous," Dudley said. "It's horrible. There are clearly defects in the laws. How can this be legal?"
The utility has additional call center representatives dedicated to ensuring every affected customer's questions are answered and concerns promptly addressed. Customers who have specific billing questions can call toll-free 1-800-700-8744 from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Contact Ivan Penn at [email protected] (727) 892-2332. Follow @Consumers_Edge.