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Regulators tweak penalties over PPL billing issues

Following a flurry of comments from customers and consumer advocates, state utility regulators altered the penalties imposed on electric utility PPL Electric Utilities over billing issues that led to overcharges for some customers, among other problems.

In a 3-2 vote on April 25, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission approved a settlement agreement requiring PPL to provide more reporting on what went wrong, including details on how the Allentown-based utility calculated the $1 million in refunds it has already provided to customers.

In another change, the settlement agreement now calls on PPL to contribute $1 million into a customer hardship fund, in lieu of what was previously a $1 million civil penalty.

“We find such revisions necessary to sufficiently address the harm to the public, to ensure these events do not recur, and to provide impacted customers with adequate remedies,” PUC chair  Stephen DeFrank said in a statement.

The settlement agreement also prevents PPL from passing on to customers the $16 million in additional costs the company absorbed to fix the billing issues, which affected bills for nearly 800,000 customers.

“We appreciate the Commission considering this matter,” a PPL spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “We will review the order once it becomes available. In the meantime, we will continue to build upon the significant work we already have done to support our customers, continuously improve our service and prevent a billing issue like this from occurring again.”

What was the issue: It originated in late 2022 when PPL discovered that data from customer meters was not making it from meter-related software to the company’s customer service system.

As a result, thousands of customers received estimated bills for December 2022.

A combination of errors led to what the PPL described as “wildly inaccurate bills,” with some customers receiving no bills at all.

In response to customer complaints, the PUC began to investigate in early 2023.

The PUC proposed an initial settlement in November and received more than 160 comments in response from customers, consumer advocates and other parties.

What’s next: PPL has 20 days to decide whether to withdraw from the modified settlement once it has been drafted and served, which could take a few days, according to PUC spokesperson Nils Hagen-Frederiksen.

The three commissioners voting for it were DeFrank, Ralph Yanora and Kathryn Zerfuss. 

Voting against were PUC vice chair Kimberly Barrow and John F. Coleman Jr. 

Barrow supported the changes but said more information and investigation would help to determine whether the settlement goes far enough, Hagen-Frederiksen said. 

Coleman noted that a strong civil penalty serves as an incentive for utilities to prevent future problems, Hagen-Frederiksen added.

In other news: The PUC voted unanimously to suspend and investigate a proposed rate increase for customers of Met-Ed and other Pennsylvania subsidiaries of Ohio-based FirstEnergy.

The utility, which serves about 2.1 million customers in the state, requested higher rates earlier this month.

It is common for the PUC to hit “pause” and scrutinize rate-hike requests more closely.

FirstEnergy has said higher rates are needed to upgrade the power grid and to support a new incentive program for electric vehicles. 

The average increases would be 9.2% for residential customers, 3.9% for commercial customers and 0.5% for industrial customers.

Following a flurry of comments from customers and consumer advocates, state utility regulators altered the penalties imposed on electric utility PPL Electric Utilities over billing issues that led to overcharges for some customers, among other problems.

In a 3-2 vote on April 25, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission approved a settlement agreement requiring PPL to provide more reporting on what went wrong, including details on how the Allentown-based utility calculated the $1 million in refunds it has already provided to customers.

In another change, the settlement agreement now calls on PPL to contribute $1 million into a customer hardship fund, in lieu of what was previously a $1 million civil penalty.

“We find such revisions necessary to sufficiently address the harm to the public, to ensure these events do not recur, and to provide impacted customers with adequate remedies,” PUC chair  Stephen DeFrank said in a statement.

The settlement agreement also prevents PPL from passing on to customers the $16 million in additional costs the company absorbed to fix the billing issues, which affected bills for nearly 800,000 customers.

“We appreciate the Commission considering this matter,” a PPL spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “We will review the order once it becomes available. In the meantime, we will continue to build upon the significant work we already have done to support our customers, continuously improve our service and prevent a billing issue like this from occurring again.”

What was the issue: It originated in late 2022 when PPL discovered that data from customer meters was not making it from meter-related software to the company’s customer service system.

As a result, thousands of customers received estimated bills for December 2022.

A combination of errors led to what the PPL described as “wildly inaccurate bills,” with some customers receiving no bills at all.

In response to customer complaints, the PUC began to investigate in early 2023.

The PUC proposed an initial settlement in November and received more than 160 comments in response from customers, consumer advocates and other parties.

What’s next: PPL has 20 days to decide whether to withdraw from the modified settlement once it has been drafted and served, which could take a few days, according to PUC spokesperson Nils Hagen-Frederiksen.

The three commissioners voting for it were DeFrank, Ralph Yanora and Kathryn Zerfuss. 

Voting against were PUC vice chair Kimberly Barrow and John F. Coleman Jr. 

Barrow supported the changes but said more information and investigation would help to determine whether the settlement goes far enough, Hagen-Frederiksen said. 

Coleman noted that a strong civil penalty serves as an incentive for utilities to prevent future problems, Hagen-Frederiksen added.

In other news: The PUC voted unanimously to suspend and investigate a proposed rate increase for customers of Met-Ed and other Pennsylvania subsidiaries of Ohio-based FirstEnergy.

The utility, which serves about 2.1 million customers in the state, requested higher rates earlier this month.

It is common for the PUC to hit “pause” and scrutinize rate-hike requests more closely.

FirstEnergy has said higher rates are needed to upgrade the power grid and to support a new incentive program for electric vehicles. 

The average increases would be 9.2% for residential customers, 3.9% for commercial customers and 0.5% for industrial customers.

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