The change in meter reader duties and the resulting employee exodus was a direct result of Allegheny Energy's merger with FirstEnergy. The computer system change was a direct result of the merger. The "renumbering" of meter reading routes was a direct result of the merger. None of these causes of (excuses for?) FirstEnergy's billing and meter reading failure would have happened but for the merger.
FirstEnergy told the WV PSC that "...the Merger would not have any adverse impact on Allegheny, the West Virginia customers of Mon Power and Potomac Edison, other public utilities in West Virginia, or the public in general, Rather, Joint Petitioners projected that the Merger would result in a stronger combined company and would benefit the public generally, the WV Subs, and Allegheny’s West Virginia customers."
This is reality: FirstEnergy's merger integration has caused great harm to hundreds of thousands of its West Virginia customers in the form of inaccurate bills. These bills resulted in financial hardships and service shutoffs. End of story. It is now FirstEnergy's financial responsibility to right its wrongs and make amends to its customers.
From the FirstEnergy merger settlement (not that any of these stipulations have been enforced by the PSC):
During the Merger integration process, FirstEnergy and Allegheny will review existing procedures and policies to determine “best practices” and how to implement them, ensuring that customer benefits appropriately outweigh the associated costs and considering any related effects on customer service and customer satisfaction levels.
The WV PSC staff fails to grasp the real causes and magnitude of the problem. The Consumer Advocate does better, but both of these regulators have only seen the tip of the iceberg. The failure to read electric meters has been going on since the fall of 2011, shortly after the merger. The high "catch up bill" complaints actually began in the spring of 2012, months before any "storms." "Storms" is just an excuse.
The staff also seems to fail to grasp that no matter which estimation routine is used, FirstEnergy's estimations will be inaccurate because they are based on inaccurate prior estimates. A weather-adjusted estimate based on garbage is still going to be garbage, no matter how much FirstEnergy or EPRI tweak it. No amount of mathematical tweaking can overcome a lack of accurate base data.
Although the staff seems content to wait and see if the inaccurate estimates trigger another billing charlie foxtrot this winter, I'm not. I'm going to start handing out staff's phone number because I've heard and seen enough. The inaccurate bills continue. Perhaps the WV PSC would rather let the legislators solve this problem through their own investigation and enactment of new legislation?
As well, none of the regulators seem to notice or care how FirstEnergy is fudging their monthly statistical reports.
And isn't it interesting that FirstEnergy keeps slipping down the slope toward reading every meter every month? Just last month, the company admitted that it had selected "several thousand" accounts for monthly reading. In its testimony filed Friday, the number of monthly read accounts has ballooned to 10,000. Give up, FirstEnergy: Every meter, every month, one year.
So, what can we do to cobble together something good out of the recommendations in the testimony?
- The Consumer Advocate recommends "...that the Companies increase their number of meter readers in order to perform actual reads every month for at least a year to obtain 12 months worth of actual reliable data for every customer. Once there is reliable customer usage data, it can be determined whether there are systemic problems with the new FE software estimation procedures that should be addressed." However, it should be stipulated that the company bears the financial responsibility for the monthly read expenses and that they shall not be recovered from customers nor included in any cost of service study for a future rate case.
- The Staff recommends "If a customer’s scheduled actual meter read is instead estimated for any reason other than demonstrable inclement weather or Federal or State Emergency Declaration, the customer shall receive a refund of the applicable customer charge for each month estimated usage occurs between utility performed actual meter readings. Applicable customer charge means the tariff customer charge for the customer’s class of service. For example, a residential customer receiving three (3) consecutive estimated meter readings would receive a $15 credit on his next actual bill." However this should be applied retroactively from the date of FirstEnergy's merger and refunded to customers to act as a punitive measure to mollify public anger.
That's it! Can we stop screwing around here and just get this over with? I'm pretty sure that FirstEnergy and its regulators have wasted way more time and money on this investigation than the company would have incurred to simply fix the problem months ago by reading meters every month. It's simply obvious.