A fact-finding session conducted by Public Services Commission members Thursday into V.I. Water and Power Authority smart meter reading practices gave a handful of local residents a chance to question their monthly utility bill charges, which they claimed WAPA has continued to “estimate” without a real formula.
At a PSC meeting on St. Thomas, commission staff presented the findings of a report that cited 20 complaints,13 from St. Croix and seven from St. Thomas, in which it was said that WAPA has continued to overestimate on monthly bills even though the smart meters are meant to give the authority more accurate readings.
Smart meters are able to send digital meter readings to WAPA and give customers the ability to control their consumption methods and costs by monitoring the real time energy usage in their homes and businesses. WAPA officials have said that an added benefit of the smart meter is the ability to know, within seconds, if an individual customer is experiencing a service interruption, without that customer having to call the line department.
The system is also meant to reduce meter tampering, quickly identify faults and lay the foundation for the full implementation of a smart electric grid.
According to the PSC and WAPA, approximately 90 to 95 percent of households on St. Thomas-St. John have smart meters installed, along with 50 to 60 percent of households on St. Croix.
According to PSC legal counsel Boyd Sprehn, the practice of estimating bills is only meant for meters that are malfunctioning or broken, but residents speaking at Thursday’s meeting said that they are still receiving estimated bills – with no consistent billing time frame – even though their meters are working.
Included among the testifiers Thursday was St. Croix retiree Frank Taylor, who said he has “repeatedly” gone to WAPA customer service to file a complaint but still has not had the issue resolved; WAPA recommended that pictures of the meter be taken so that the bills can be reevaluated, but Taylor said that each time he sends the photos in, WAPA says they were not taken on the “right day.”
PSC board members said that bills being estimated do not cover consistent monthly billing cycles. Instead, bills cover anywhere between 28 to 30 days, and customers contended Thursday that it would be difficult for WAPA to make an estimate if there is no formula governing how long each billing cycle is.
The authority’s ability to back-bill for up to 90 days was also a concern voiced by customers, PSC members said Thursday.
Utility officials said that they received the report approximately 10 minutes before Thursday’s meeting and had not prepared a response, though WAPA representatives still answered questions for the better part of two hours.
Addressing the issue of estimation, WAPA legal counsel Samuel Hall explained that when a meter does not have a reading, the utility is able to go through the history of the customer at the time of billing, while the system generates an estimated charge or consumption.
Asked about the lack of “human” involvement in the process, Hall said that there are cases, during the edit process, where readings that are thought to be “out of whack” are corrected or addressed by WAPA employees.
Hall said that he would also further look into the estimation process, how often it is used and what the concerns are.
PSC members voted to send WAPA a copy of the report presented Thursday by the staff and asked that the utility prepare a response by the commission’s next meeting.
The PSC also:
– extended the deadline by which it has to act on recent base rate requests filed by WAPA;
– decided to postpone until its next meeting a decision on a petition for reconsideration from Momentum Telecom, which is seeking to offer landline service in the territory. Momentum’s petition has generated issues relating to the PSC’s jurisdiction on telecommunications matters and what exactly it has the ability to regulate;
– extended for a year a petition from Advance Power for qualifying facility status;
– and gave an overview of Innovative’s new officials and staff as the company continues to transition after being bought by Atlantic Tele Network.