The problems stem from a series of issues connected with several large storms and with FirstEnergy's acquisition of the utilities' former parent, Allegheny Energy in early 2011, according to company spokesman Todd Meyers.
Bills are based on alternate months of actual meter readings and estimates, Meyers said.
During storm response — including, since the acquisition, Hurricane Irene in August 2011, the derecho in June 2012 and superstorm Sandy in October 2012, as well as smaller storms — meter readers may be called off their routes to watch lines that have been reported down until line crews arrive. They return to reading meters on schedule, so the readings that are missed during those periods aren't made up and result in three estimates in a row — which can result in large true-up bills when those meters are read in the fourth month.
In addition, as FirstEnergy began transitioning from Allegheny's system in which meter readers conducted meter maintenance and other functions as well to its own system in which they only read meters, some staff in the Potomac Edison service area switched to other positions, creating a temporary staffing shortage in mid-2012, Meyers said.
And another phase of transition in early 2013 called "renumbering," in which routes were adjusted, also resulted in a one-time long billing cycle, he said — which, again, created problems primarily in the eastern panhandle.
I'm not buying it.
Meyers suggests that weather has caused more downed lines since the Allegheny Energy/FirstEnergy merger and suggests that the company's failure to read meters is caused by meter readers being reassigned to babysit downed wires.
My pile of bills from the last five years doesn't lie. Weather is what it is. Extreme weather that takes down power lines comes and goes. Extreme weather never caused numerous successive estimates on my bill before the merger. In fact, it looks like the Allegheny Energy meter reader showed up faithfully through all kinds of weather to read my meter, even when he had to wade through deep snow to do it. My meter was read every other month like clockwork until the fall of 2011. Regular meter readings stopped abruptly in October of 2011, and what had been fairly uniform monthly bills began to get wackier and wackier as time went on, climbing up or down without rhyme or reason by as much as $100. But I'm one of the lucky ones. Some Potomac Edison customers had their bills jump by thousands of dollars in one month's time.
As well, during two of the storms Todd mentions in his excuse for the company's failure, one of Potomac Edison's distribution lines came down in my neighborhood and NOBODY showed up to babysit it until repairs could be made, even though it was lying in a busy street. The local fire department placed traffic cones around it to keep vehicles from driving over it, but no meter reader showed up to direct traffic. At one point, we were fortunate enough to catch a FirstEnergy employee at the site while driving by. He explained that he was there simply to evaluate the problem and would not be staying. He also informed us that it would be days before the line would be repaired and power restored. Where was my meter reader during all this?
Oh, that's right... he had been "reassigned" and not replaced. That's most likely because the new boss at FirstEnergy had ordered that the former Allegheny companies' yearly loss on meter reading functions be remedied. And, since the companies did not want to file new rate cases to increase the amount recovered for this function, they simply cut the amount being spent on it to align with the amount being recovered. Seems fair, right? There's only one little problem... cutting services meant that meters would be read with less frequency, and the frequency of meter reading is set out in the companies' state jurisdictional tariffs. In order to cut services, the company had to willfully violate its tariff. And next thing you know, the "storm excuse" was born.
Everything still might have turned out okay, except that the company didn't think their action through. Numerous estimates skewed the companies' estimation algorithm. If you add enough false data to any computer program, it's going to start producing false results. Garbage in, garbage out!
In addition, something went horribly wrong with the companies' transition from Allegheny Energy's computerized billing system to FirstEnergy's computerized billing system. Anyone who has worked with computers knows what a joke this is. A huge transition like this should have been carefully planned and tested and both systems should have been run in parallel for a period of time so that a backup existed in case of major error. Instead, FirstEnergy wants us to believe there were no backups and that they have not managed to work the bugs out of their system for over a year. This isn't an "Act of God," it's sheer incompetence. And then the elaborate "transition" excuses were born.
The more elaborate the excuse, the greater the chance that it's simply not true.