Utility regulators delve into Duke billing issue

topnsflogoState Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, offered Thursday, September 4, to carry legislation to prevent power companies from temporarily pushing customers into a higher rate bracket by extending billing cycles.

Dean’s proposal to the Florida Public Service Commission came as some Duke Energy Florida customers have received, or may soon get, higher-than-usual monthly bills because of an ongoing effort by the utility to streamline meter-reading routes throughout Central and North Florida.

However, before making any requests to lawmakers, members of the Public Service Commission said they will hold a workshop early next year to determine if any rewrite is needed.

“Maybe this is one of the opportunities that give us some pause to make sure the rule does what it is intended to do,” said Commissioner Ronald A. Brisé.

Commission Chairman Art Graham, who had initially requested a meeting on the Duke charges, said that if the commission can’t handle any changes internally, it would then approach the Legislature.

Graham also reiterated that he is satisfied Duke has agreed to credit customers who have been pushed into a higher rate bracket due to extended billing periods.

Duke customers are charged $11.34 for every 100 kilowatt hours of use up to 1,000 kilowatt hours. The rate jumps to $13.70 for each 100 kilowatt hours after the 1,000 kilowatt mark.

Dean, who estimated his sprawling, largely rural district, has about 125,000 Duke customers, said he was concerned about similar billing hikes occurring in the future.

“The extra charges, coming in the hottest months of the year, is a general unfairness,” Dean said. “I for one think that billing first and trying to credit later is just an inappropriate action.”

Dean added that if the commission has a recommendation for the Legislature, “let’s don’t put it off. I’m willing and ready.”

Commissioner Eduardo Balbis said the focus of any workshop should be to clarify any “gray areas” for companies and customers regarding the extended billing-cycle rules.

“It should be clear so that the companies know and the customers know what is going to happen … and how we address that, so we don’t find ourselves in this situation,” said Balbis, whose term expires at the end of the year.

Duke Energy has been following state rules that allow billing cycles to be extended while meter-reading routes are revised, but it has been looking at its own billing rules, said Duke spokesman Sterling Ivey.

“It certainly brought out some issues that we need to look at whenever we are rerouting customers, to make sure we’re not rerouting customers from a lower tier bill rate to a higher tier bill rate,” Ivey said.

Duke has been working since May 2013 to revamp meter-reading routes, starting around Orlando, for its 1.7 million customers.

Most of the concerns about higher billing have come from the Tampa-St. Petersburg region, Ivey said.

About 1 million customers in Central Florida have already gone through the changes as the new meter-reader routes were being set. It is estimated that about a quarter have received bills covering 33 or more days.

The changes are now being made in Pinellas and Pasco counties. Customers south of Tallahassee in the Big Bend region should expect to see changes to their billing cycle in October.

The billing drew the ire of a couple of state legislators after news reports of the increased costs surfaced. Last week, Duke Energy Florida President Alex Glenn announced that credit would be given those found to have been hit with higher charges.

Ivey said the company is still determining which customers may have been shifted into a higher rate bracket.

Glenn planned to appear before Public Service Commission on Thursday, but Graham wrote Tuesday he was satisfied with the company’s decision to credit customers and that Glenn didn’t need to appear.

Duke had a number of technical and legal staff members on hand at the meeting Thursday, but only received one question from the commission.

Reposted by permission of The News Service of Florida.

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