Lawmaker, Eversource at odds over billing

A state lawmaker and Eversource are at odds over accusations that the utility and electricity suppliers have misled and overcharged ratepayers for months, if not years — claims that Eversource described as misinformation on Wednesday.

State Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, says his electricity bills since September have wrongly indicated he'd be charged just 7 cents per kilowatt hour in the following month's billing cycle. But Suzio has been charged almost 13 cents per kilowatt hour by third-party supplier Spark Energy, according to Eversource electricity bills the senator shared with several media outlets, including The Day.

"It dumbfounds me that (Eversource) doesn't have any internal controls to prevent this kind of misleading information in its billing information to customers," Suzio said in a complaint filed Tuesday with the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority. "It appears (Eversource is) indifferent to the potential abuse by suppliers and the financial consequences for ratepayers."

Suzio argued that many customers likely deserve refunds and he called for investigations by PURA and the Office of Consumer Counsel (OCC), an independent state consumer advocacy group. Both agencies and the state Attorney General's Office have reviewed the issue of inaccurate "next cycle rate" information turning up on electricity bills in recent years, PURA records show.  

Eversource and regulators note that, per state statute, the onus is on suppliers to electronically share accurate and timely "next cycle rate" information with electricity distributors.

Eversource spokesman Mitch Gross said for customers who choose third-party suppliers, Eversource has no control or oversight over that portion of the bill. Eversource, he said, supports "any state action to ensure customers receive clear and accurate rate information from their third-party supplier."

"Unfortunately, Sen. Suzio doesn't understand how our bills are created and is perpetuating misinformation," Gross argued. "The information provided on customers' bills about alternative suppliers' rates comes directly from those suppliers. Our customers deserve accurate and timely information on the supply rate they're paying and we always encourage customers to check with their supplier so they know what their current rate is."

Spark Energy, which is based in Texas, declined to comment Wednesday evening.

Suzio noted in his complaint that PURA has been aware of suppliers providing utilities inaccurate or incomplete rate projections, based on a PURA review that began a few years ago.

Edwin Dearman, a senior manager for Spark Energy, wrote to PURA last May to report that the supplier was fully compliant with state statutes.

The OCC noted it was "very familiar with the issue Sen. Suzio raises," as the agency was an active party in PURA's proceedings implementing electric bill reforms to improve transparency in 2014.

"Any overcharge to a customer is a problem, and in this case a potentially systemic problem that could hit many consumers in their pocketbooks," the OCC said in a statement.

PURA to investigate

Mike Coyle, director of special enforcement and consumer affairs at PURA, said Wednesday that it appeared Suzio's "next bill information was incorrect" and the agency's legal and technology teams would review the matter.

Asked if PURA had received recent complaints beyond Suzio's, Coyle said he was "not aware of any systemic issues involving other suppliers."

Coyle said based on a preliminary review and discussions with Eversource and Spark Energy, it appeared Spark Energy "may have transmitted some incorrect information to Eversource. (Eversource is) just a billing agent in these transactions. The information is taken through an electronic data exchange the suppliers provide, and Eversource electronically populates the 'next bill' section with that information."

Coyle said while PURA doesn't have the statutory authority to mandate refunds, restitution is "often part of a plan to achieve compliance."

Suzio didn't accept PURA's and Eversource's explanations.

"We're so conditioned to these outrageous bills that we get," Suzio said Wednesday, arguing thousands of customers may have been impacted without noticing inaccurate rate projections. "(Eversource) acknowledges it's wrong information, but they say it's Spark's problem. But it's printed on their bill. It says 'Eversource' on their bill."

Gross said Eversource officials "understand that there's sometimes confusion and we encourage our customers to check their bills and check with their suppliers."

Approximately 350,000 ratepayers — about 28 percent of Eversource's 1.25 million customers — choose a third-party supplier, according to Gross.

United Illuminating said about 35 percent of its customers choose alternate suppliers to provide their generation service.

Asked about the senator's case and PURA's review, UI spokesman Edward Crowder said "The onus is on these third-party suppliers to provide timely and accurate information about rates and terms."

Suppliers can be found on energizect.com, an initiative of the Energy Efficiency Fund.

b.kail@theday.com

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