Customers weren’t getting zapped with higher-than-usual electric bills just because of rate increases and cold weather.
Buried last month in questions about high electric bills, Seattle City Light told shocked customers that rate increases and chilly weather were likely responsible.
Turns out there’s a couple more chapters to the story.
Estimated meter readings can always result in bloated bills, City Light said last month. But the agency estimated many more readings than usual this winter, Customer Care Director Kelly Enright told the City Council’s energy committee.
The new billing system City Light switched to last year doesn’t identify and flag when a customer’s bill runs much higher than usual. The old billing system did.
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“We are missing a query that we did have in the old system that could have flagged these accounts ahead of time,” Enright told the committee last week.
City Light spokesman Scott Thomsen said the missing capability could be built into the new billing system “in the next couple of weeks.”
In the meantime, City Light will review the bill of every customer who has a concern, and make customers with incorrect bills whole, Enright said.
That could take some doing. The agency has logged five times more escalated complaints this winter than last, according to Enright’s presentation.
City Light is serving more customers as Seattle grows, which partly explains the increase in complaints. But as Enright acknowledged, high bills are a factor, as well.
“Customers are upset,” she said.
But there was another reason for the high bills, according to Enright. City Light usually attempts to estimate only 2 percent of meters. This winter, the agency estimated 11 percent, Enright said.
Why? Enright said snow prevented meter readers, on some days, from getting to all the homes they were supposed to.
In an email, Thomsen expanded on Enright’s explanation.
“Seattle experienced several days with lowland snow that made driving treacherous,” Thomsen said.
“Our meter readers were not immune to that. It slowed down their work and they were not able to reach all of the homes and businesses on their routes those days.”
The time period during which City Light estimated 11 percent of meters was Jan. 20 to March 17, Thomsen said.
Estimated readings will become less common as City Light begins to install new smart meters this summer, the spokesman said.
The smart meters will send data straight to City Light, eliminating the need for the agency to dispatch meter readers, Thomsen said.
With bills based on estimated readings, City Light generally makes up the difference over the next few billing cycles.
Mistakes caused by erroneous readings are supposed to be caught and corrected when the meters are next read correctly.