In a sharply worded jab, state regulators ordered DTE Energy on Monday to explain why thousands of Michiganders may have had their gas or electric service shut off without what the state considers to be full notification.
The Michigan Public Service Commission ordered the utility's gas and electric providers “to prove they did not violate the Commission’s billing rules” when they switched to a new billing system in April.
But the new billing system is used by about 140 other utilities nationwide, lets customers to view and pay their bills in multiple ways and caused so few problems when it was launched that the utility earned a national SAP Utility of the Year award, according to DTE Energy Executive Director of Customer Service Angie Pizzuti, in testimony Jan. 30 before the Michigan House Energy Subcommittee.
"Errors in the new C360 billing platform did disrupt our normal billing processes, resulting in approximately 5,300 incidents of wrongful disconnections," Pizzuti testified last week.
Of those, "99% of these wrongful disconnections were customers whose accounts were in arrears and subject to disconnection for non-payment. These customers did receive some notification, but not the duplication of notice required by the MPSC," Pizzuti testified.
In other words, customers who were more than $100 behind in paying their bills had been given the utility's standard 10-day shutoff notice but many failed to receive the company's usual five-day second notice, the utility said. To make things right, DTE Energy restored power across the board, it said.
“In abundance of caution, on Jan. 13, DTE restored all 9,000 customers” whose service may have been shut off because of the defective notification procedure, DTE Energy's General Counsel David Maquera said in a Jan. 29 letter to the MPSC.
In previous exchanges between the MPSC and DTE Energy, state regulators said there had been three categories of improper shutoffs in 2017. Besides those due to improper notification triggered by a customer's failure to pay for service, a second group of fewer than 20 cases had “pending complaints” against DTE Energy, yet they had service “wrongfully shut off” while trying to resolve the disputes.
A third group of customers who suffered wrongful shutoffs, according to the MPSC, were those who initially denied access for DTE Energy to install so-called “smart meters,” the high-tech utility meters that utilities monitor remotely, saving the companies and their customers the cost of having meter readers go house to house. A small percentage of utility customers in Michigan, and nationwide, have resisted having smart meters installed, blaming them for everything from mysterious mental and physical ailments to being portals for corporate and even government snooping on private citizens.
When Michiganders deny a utility the access to install a smart meter, the utility routinely notifies such customers that their service may be disconnected — in accordance with state rules — if they do not contact the utility to allow the installation. Michiganders can decline to have the smart meter's signal activated, but they must pay a monthly fee to cover the cost of having a meter reader visit their location, a DTE Energy spokeswoman said Monday.
In some cases, some smart-meter skeptics who decided to comply with an installation request by the utility "either contacted DTE and set up an appointment date, or were unable to reach DTE by phone, and were still disconnected despite their efforts to comply with DTE's request," according to a Dec. 20 order of the MPSC.
Michigan's utilities are failing to accommodate those consumers who don't trust the new technology, said State Rep. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake.
“I signed on to the deal for people to opt out of those smart meters, and I’ve just heard horror stories about it,” Runestad said Monday.
DTE Energy said its new billing procedure is working well now, and that “a new control has been embedded into the notification process" to prevent notification failures in the future. Still, MPSC regulators ordered the company to appear at a show-cause hearing on March 9 to explain “misinformation provided by DTE to MPSC staff” in the course of the state's inquiries into complaints about service shutoffs.
DTE Energy issued the following statement Monday in response to the MPSC's latest order: “Upgrading our customer systems throughout our enterprise is a tremendous undertaking that is central to our business operations. The vast majority of our customers had a seamless experience, and our new system has safeguards in place to avoid these situations in the future. Providing the best experience possible for our customers remains our priority.”
The shutoffs have drawn barbs from state Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton, who is critical not only of DTE Energy but also of what he says are failures by regulators to be tough enough on the big utility that serves southeast Michigan.
In a Jan. 16 letter about the utility shutoffs to the House Energy Policy Committee, Colbeck said that “we are all lucky that none of this has yet to result in a tragic death” from lack of heat during Michigan’s harsh winter. In the letter, he recommended that the state rule requiring utilities to report their volume of “involuntary shutoffs” also require a detailed explanation for each case.
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