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Consumers Energy customers receive massive bills; Internal investigation underway

Posted at 10:38 PM, Nov 06, 2015

WEST MICHIGAN --  Several people in West Michigan reached out to the FOX 17 Problem Solvers after Consumers Energy bills sky-rocketed to 13 times the normal price.

The Problem Solvers brought this to the attention of the Michigan Public Service Commission, who noticed there was a spike in estimated readings for the company. Now they’re sharing with the preliminary findings of an internal investigation with Consumers Energy.

The Michigan Public Service Commission says from one of their first on-going meetings with Consumers Energy about the rise in estimated reads they found out a few things like the lowest read month was February due to weather conditions. The estimated bills are affecting at least 26,000 customers statewide in terms of estimating reads for three consecutive months or more.

Consumers Energy has identified regions with the highest number of customers with months of consecutive estimates. Three of the regions, which they did not identify, are scheduled for advanced metering infrastructure installation and are being given higher priority for the installation of smart meters.

Consumers Energy is hiring additional temporary staff during the heating season, where their actual reads were the lowest.

The company says they are working with customers with high bills so they are able to pay it back in the length of time it was estimated for. For example, if you got estimated reads for three years, and then got hit with a huge bill, then you have the course of three years to pay it off.

Consumers Energy is also deploying a tactical team that, among other things, analyzes their estimation algorithm and process. An algorithm that Consumers Energy used to come up with their estimate reads may need some tweaking so that the bills are scaled more evenly.

In the meantime, there’s still some people out there getting hit with high bills that they can’t afford.

“When we received the bill, I was like 'What has happened? I don’t understand this,'” said Carol Armstrong.

Armstrong requested three years worth of her energy bills after she got hit with an over $3,000 bill. She found out they had estimated her bill for three years except for twice: the month she moved into her house, and the month they charged her over $3,000.

Initially, Consumers Energy told Armstrong she would have to pay an additional $438 to each bill until it was paid off.

“They say it like it’s nothing. I told them well you say that like it’s nothing, but let me ask you question. If you went to your house today and opened your mailbox, and you had a bill in there like that, how would you feel? She said 'I wouldn’t be able to pay it,'” said Armstrong.

That’s when Armstrong contacted the Michigan Public Service Commission who told her she actually had three years to pay it back, the same amount of time they estimated her electric usage.

“It was FOX 17 that drew it to our attention,” said Judy Palnau, the spokeswoman for Michigan Public Service Commission.

A few months ago FOX 17 brought the high bills to the Public Service Commission, which also noticed a spike in estimated readings and launched an internal investigation into Consumers Energy.

“This is not the first time this has happened over the years so we want to keep an eye on it,” said Palnau.

Palnau said that 6,000 customers are on the extreme side of the estimations. Consumers Energy told FOX 17 that they remain in communication with the Public Service Commission and plan to increase the rate of smart meters being installed every month.

They want to start their installations with the areas where there are the highest estimated reads. Consumers Energy has installed more than 750,000 upgraded electric meters and is on schedule to install a total of 1.8 million meters by the end of 2017.

Consumers Energy said the upgraded meters will eliminate the need for estimated readings. They claim the estimated reads occur when the meter cannot be accessed because of threats of violence against employees, aggressive dogs, or extreme weather.

"I don't feel like we should be responsible for having to figure out what we owe you [Consumers Energy]” said Armstrong.

Armstrong adds that her husband is always home because he is retired, so if they needed access to her house they could have knocked on the door. Armstrong now has a smart meter, so she is hoping that changes her irregular bills. However, she is still responsible for the $3,000 they tacked on to her bill.

Consumers Energy changed her rate to $88 instead of $438 additional to each bill.