Southern California Gas Co. has acknowledged that errors tied to the rollout of new digital meters installed at Orange County homes contributed to a rash of higher bills and customer complaints in recent months.
The utility company said changes to meter-reading schedules during the shift to “advanced” meters caused some of the billing anomalies that have surfaced since late January.
As they have in the past, gas company officials attribute complaints about suddenly higher bills primarily to a cold snap and increased use of fuel for heating that bumped customers into more costly pricing tiers.
However, this week’s response to Register questions about continuing consumer protests was the first time the switch to new meters was included as a factor in the problems.
Still, critics argue that the issue goes beyond weather and meter-reading changes – citing unusual February bills and puzzling explanations by company representatives. The general confusion has left some customers distrustful of the advanced-meter accuracy.
One measure of customer distress has been the number of written complaints received by the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates the gas company. Those jumped tenfold to 500 in January and February from the same period last year.
The new meters being installed across the county upload data directly to the gas company and are gradually eliminating human meter readers. Roughly 220,000 Orange County customers – out of 930,000 – still have older meters, according to the gas company. About 9 percent of the newly installed meters in the region are not fully operational.
This week, SoCalGas spokesman Javier Mendoza noted the company recently made changes in the routes used by meter readers assigned to the older equipment. He said some customers received bills covering more than 35 days, with some extending up to 49 days – far more than the typical 29-to-32-day billing cycle.
The bigger bills resulting from the changes were compounded by a colder-than-usual winter, Mendoza said.
The gas company sent customers letters promising to adjust bills to reconcile any differences caused by the change. The onus, however, is on the customer to investigate any issues.
Mendoza stressed only a small portion of bills were affected: 140,000 of 6 million.
“We apologize for the inconvenience of making this change,” Mendoza said in a prepared statement to the Register. “SoCalGas recognizes that in any mass deployment of technology there may be some speed bumps.”
Mindy Spratt, spokeswoman for watchdog The Utility Reform Network, or TURN, said SoCalGas failed to provide clear and accurate bills to customers as required. Spratt’s group has criticized the deployment of the high-tech meters, saying they are costing consumers more – typically about $24 a year. Over TURN’s objections, the state utilities commission approved the new meters in 2010 on a 3-2 vote.
“We’re always concerned when utilities are sending out inaccurate billing … (and) when utilities are wasting customer money on meters that they don’t want and don’t need,” said Spratt.
In response to Register inquiries, the CPUC sent a copy of a Feb. 12 letter from commission president Michael Picker to Assembly member Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, who had asked about constituent billing complaints.
“While cold weather and resulting increased natural gas usage account for most increased bills,” Picker wrote. “Some individual customers could have other anomalies that require specific research into that individual bill.”
The Office of Ratepayer Advocates, the unit within the CPUC that is supposed to represent customers, said it is reviewing the gas company billing issues.
Customers say SoCalGas’ explanations, while a start, do not fully explain the shocking billings – or restore trust in an institution that few tend to question.
Monica Herron, who agreed to have her bill analyzed by SoCalGas at the Register’s request, said she is more confused than before.
The company said it undercharged Herron and her husband for January – attributing the mistake to a meter reader’s blunder. However, the company said an advanced meter, which was installed a few weeks ago, compensated for the human error in February readings.
“We will add 67 therms to the January bill, making the total January usage 80 therms,” the gas company said. “We will subtract 67 therms from the February bill, making the total February usage 32 therms.”
Both ways, therm consumption for the two months totals 112, which Herron calls “arbitrary.”
“There is no way to confirm that claim,” she adds. “We just have to take their word for it.”
She also doubts she and her husband, who rarely use their heater, burned 80 therms in January – four times their January 2015 usage.
A bad reading by meter personnel also was blamed in another case reviewed by the gas company in response to a complaint received by the Register.
Due to “human error,” the company found Huntington Beach resident Steve Farnsworth’s January bill was too low. But then February’s $210 bill was a bit too high.
Taken together, Farnsworth’s total for the two month’s was reduced $4, he said.
Farnsworth disagrees with the analysis. He and his wife, who live alone, keep their thermostat in the low 60s and say they haven’t changed their gas-use habits recently. Before February’s tab, the previous high for any month was $70, in 2010, he said.
“I’m going to pay closer attention to my bill,” he said. “I’ve lost faith in the reading of the meters.”
Mendoza, of SoCalGas, said the flawed bills aren’t indicative of a larger problem.
CALL FOR PROBE
The billing issue stretches beyond county lines.
Last month, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously approved a request for a CPUC investigation of similar customer complaints.
“We have calls and emails coming in from all over California – not just our own constituents,” said councilman Mitch Englander, who authored the request.
Englander represents the upscale San Fernando Valley community of Porter Ranch, where a massive gas well leak was discovered in October. SoCalGas is footing the tab for the temporary relocation of thousands of families.
“Even Porter Ranch residents who were forced to vacate their homes received bills three to four times higher than normal for January,” Englander said. “How could that be? They weren’t even in their houses.”
Englander said that advanced meters recently were deployed in the area.
“It’s suspicious,” he said. “Who calibrated them? We need straight answers.”