Duke reps in town to address billing factors
Duke Energy crews are no strangers to dealing with the damage storms can cause to the thousands of miles of electrical lines the company uses to bring power to its customers.
But when “a perfect storm” created unexpectedly high bills for Duke customers in the Greencastle and Terre Haute areas recently, a different sort of response was necessary.
After a weekend transformation by IT workers and other employees, the Duke office in Terre Haute and at 1400 Indianapolis Rd., Greencastle, were turned into temporary customer service centers, with workers from the call center in Plainfield on hand for face-to-face meetings with concerned customers.
“We thought, in this situation, let’s take our customer service reps to our customers and explain what the facts were,” explained Duke spokesman Lew Middleton.
The facts, Middleton said, is that three factors came together to create unexpectedly — and in some cases incorrectly — high bills.
The first factor was unusually cold weather in December. He said that across Indiana, the number of heating degree days doubled from November to December.
A heating degree day is a measurement designed to measure the demand for energy needed to heat a building. It is derived from measurements of outside air temperature.
Middleton said customers used about 61 percent more kilowatt/hours in December than November.
This obviously led to a jump in usage.
Middleton said another factor for some customers revolves around estimated usage on bills.
Bills are estimated for a variety of reasons, revolving around the safety of meter readers and access to the meter.
If a meter is behind a locked fence or gate or there is an angry animal, a bill might be estimated.
“It is possible for a customer to receive two or in rare cases three consecutive estimated bills,” Middleton said. “Eventually, the meter reader is going to get in there. If the estimate has been a little low, there’s going to be a catch-up. But we don’t want customers to pay any more or any less than what they use.”
He said an “e” following the usage measurement indicates an estimate.
The final and most unusual reason for the high bills was an error in the conversion to Duke’s new digital smart meters installed for customers in the area.
Because the new meters measure usage slightly differently, a conversion had to be used. In some cases, an error occurred, causing it to look like customers used $8,000 or $9,000 worth of power.
Normally such high bills will send up red flags and a Duke associate will review the bill before it is sent out.
“Unfortunately, that did not happen and those bills went out,” Middleton said.
With those excessively high bills sent out at the same time others customers were seeing higher than normal bills, a public outcry followed.
“I think many times customers feel like they don’t have any influence with the big utilities,” Middleton said, “so instead of calling customer service, they will go on social media and broadcast it to all their followers.”
At that point, an uproar follows.
Things were bad enough in West Central Indiana that Duke saw fit to take extra steps in Greencastle and Terre Haute.
Tuesday was just the first step. Customer service reps will be back in the local office on Wednesday and Thursday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day. They will be back again next week on Tuesday through Thursday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“We thought it was important for us to come to these communities and explain to customers face-to-face why their usage was so high,” Middleton said. “When it’s a combination of factors, I think that makes it even harder for customers to understand. We like to think, as people, that there’s one problem and we can find one solution to fix it.”
For some, the explanation is just step one of the solution.
Middleton added that for eligible customers, a payment plan can also be arranged.
“We can work out a payment plan for you to pay this off over a number of months,” he said.
Customers with budget billing may have also seen an increase in usage but are insulated from the increase until the end of their annual renewal.
Such individuals should call customer care at 800-521-2232
“I would urge customers who are on budget bill to look ahead and see what the reconciliation amount is going to be,” Middleton said.
One mitigating factor for budget bill customers could be that, besides December, this winter has been relatively mild.
Regardless of their billing situation, Middleton said Duke representatives are happy to meet with customers, answer questions and resolve the situation.
“Having a face-to-face conversation is sometimes easier than over the phone,” he said.