WEST MICHIGAN -- FOX 17 Problem Solvers have been investigating viewing complaints of super high bills from Consumers Energy based on estimated readings. Several weeks ago, the state decided it was time to look into it and announced a probe aimed at fixing the problem.
Now, Consumers Energy has filed a 66-page report with the Michigan Public Service Commission. The report lays in charts and graphs organized to help answer the big question: What’s going wrong when it comes to meters and estimated billing?
Consumers Energy used estimated readings to bill over 170,000 electric customers a month on average this previous summer, and they found shortfalls in the way the process works.
“We make sure we flag accounts when there are consecutive meter reads, and we won’t let it continue for as long as it has continued in the past,” said Roger Morgenstern, the senior public information director for Consumers Energy.
Consumers said that some of the data they have isn’t up to par, which prevents their readers from getting an actual reading. For example, out of their 3 ½ million accounts, more than 700,000 of them are marked with a dog code, meaning that meter is inaccessbile because of a dog blocking access. A meter reader can opt out of getting an actual reading at those particular homes, and now they're finding out that several of those customers don’t actually have a dog.
“We are already doing something to make this right,” said Morgenstern.
Consumers is currently updating all their records. The report points out their meter reader turnover rate is 60%, meaning that they started 2015 with 310 employed meter readers but ended with only 180.
“The meter reading job is an entry level position, so that is the ebb and flow of any business,” said Morgenstern.
And on the topic of estimated meter reads. the algorithm they use to estimate customers’ bills is fine, according to Consumers. However, their weather model they use to put into that algorithm has been incorrect. For example, everyone’s home is in a certain ‘weather zone,’ based on lake effect weather. Consumers found it was not as accurate as it could be. They said their solution is not to do away with estimated reads, but to reduce them.
“The bottom line: we need to make an attempt to read a meter every month,” said Morgenstern.
The solution seems to lie in smart meters; meters that report energy usage directly to the energy company. Consumers has already installed more than 800,000 electric smart meters and more than 75,000 smart gas modules. They have come up with a short term solution to take care of the meters that haven’t been switched over yet.
“Between now and April 30th we are going to be reading 25,000 meters that have been estimated for more than 3 months. Since Monday we have a group of 200 employees who are focused, and assigned to this,” said Morgenstern.
There are still a lot of questions left unanswered, such as the total amount of customers affected since 2005 due to these estimated reads; the dollar value of money lost to estimated reads; or whether or not people are due compensation because of the the faulty weather zones affecting the algorithm.
“We feel we have addressed each of the 8 concerns in the commission’s request with detailed information on all 8 of the categories.”
Despite Consumers’ confidence in the information they passed along to the state commission, they know they have some repairs to make with their reputation.
“As for the overall customer trust, we know have fallen down, and we need to earn that trust back. We think with this plan we are going to make it right and show our customers we mean business. We are going to make this right. We will earn back any respect we may have lost,” said Morgenstern.
This is just the first step in many to follow in this process. Just because Consumers presented these findings doesn’t mean the commission staff can’t ask for more information, which they most likely will in the weeks to come. On May 18, the commission will present recommendations they have for the company. Those recommendations are merely suggestions that Consumers can choose to implement or not. The commissioners are the only ones that can demand any change to Consumers’ practices, and there is no deadline for when the commissioner has to make that decision.