St. Paul, Minn. — The problem traces to wireless devices used to transmit meter information from hard-to-reach meters, such as those in basements. In some cases people were billed half what they owed. But in most cases identified so far, the devices reported gas consumption was twice the amount actually used. That resulted in twice the gas bill.
Pat Boland, Xcel's supervisor of the personal accounts department, says the problem affected a very small percentage of gas meters but, "we know that customers have been impacted by this, we sincerely apologize for it, and we are going to work to make sure we work to fix it going forward," he says.
About 3,400 meters are potentially affected. Some are in North Dakota. The majority are in the eastern Twin Cities metro area. Inspection of those meters is about one third complete.
Xcel has so far identified 280 meters providing the wrong information. The majority resulted in over-billing. Of those, Xcel says ten percent or 28 accounts had their service disconnected for not paying their bill. That's above average, but with most of the review still to be done, Xcel says it's too early to make any projections. Four of the 28 were identified as low-income customers, a rate slightly below average.
Did they incur moving expenses? Were they forced into a homeless shelter?
None of the disconnections occurred from mid-October to mid-April, the period in which the state's cold weather rule is designed to prevent shutoffs.
Did the over-billing cause the shutoffs? Xcel's Pat Boland says the company is still checking. He says some homes may use gas just for cooking, for example, meaning gas would be a much smaller part of the total bill.
"If their electric bill was, in a given month, $100, and gas was only $10 or $12, I don't know if we could make the assumption the service was disconnected because of the natural gas issue," says Boland.
The company is planning to refund customers the amount over-billed. Individual checks could reach into the thousands of dollars. Xcel is asking regulators for authority to go back more than the three-year refund limit in current rules. In addition, Xcel will refund half of the monthly gas service charge over the affected period, even though that wasn't affected by the errors. The average charge is $6.50.
But Pam Marshall questions the adequacy of refunds for people who had their utilities disconnected. Marshall runs the Energy Cents Coalition, which advocates on behalf of low-income consumers.
"Did they incur moving expenses? Were they forced into a homeless shelter? This is probably something for the attorneys to hash out. But it seems to me, if you were forced out of your home, or into some other dire circumstance as a result of this, and it is directly attributable to Xcel's double billing, then yes, they should be responsible for making people whole," says Marshall.
Some of the cases go back as far as 1999, and Marshall says she wonders how such errors lasted as much as 5 years.
"We had incredible natural gas price spikes. I have to believe that customers were calling Xcel to complain that their bills were higher than normal and that they were dismissed. Otherwise somebody would have gone and checked these meters physically before now," says Marshall.
But Pat Boland of Xcel says those price spikes, along with unseasonably cold weather in those years prompted concerns from many customers.
"There were, obviously, as you can imagine, a lot of customers, or a lot of phone calls to us as a company around those times that customers were sharing concerns about their gas bills. These are all things that we're going to be looking for and looking at as we move forward again over the next several weeks," says Boland.
In 1998, Xcel's predecessor company, Northern States Power agreed to pay $6 million to settle complaints about meter reading problems. A spokesman for the Commerce Department says at this point it appears Xcel is doing what it needs to under the law, and if customers want to seek further compensation, they may have to go to court.