Austin Energy complaints spike after bills skyrocket

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Warmer temperatures in December means less work for you thermostat, so why do so many people seem to have a problem with their Austin Energy bill?

The KXAN Investigates team has been flooded with calls and emails about their Austin Energy bills doubling, even tripling following our news reports on billing spikes over the last two weeks.

“We had periods of cold weather during December and January that I think frankly some of us sort of forgot about,” said Ed Clark with Austin Energy.

For some perspective, we compared years past to determine just how cold it was.

December of 2012 was the ninth warmest December in more than 150 years. In fact, the entire month of December was the fourth warmest average temperature on record, at 68.9 degrees. And January’s average temperature was 2.1 degrees warmer than the normal temperature.

“We had the furnace turned off for so much of that month,” said customer Dave Pedley. “Turned off for probably about 10 days to two weeks.”

Pedley has lived in the same house for 17 years. And he knows how to read his electric bill. Even though his bill was $158 more than the previous month, Pedley looks directly at kilowatt hours used, per day, and that’s what concerns him.

“The average per day use was 72 kilowatt hours, and I can’t understand how that can be,” he said.

But Austin Energy’s chief operating officer says the bill is spot on.

“We can clearly see that on the days when the temperature’s in the 70s in the afternoons their consumption is much less than it is on the days where it never climbs above 60,” said Cheryl Mele.

Austin Energy says while Pedley may have had his furnace off for a few days early in the month, his billing cycle didn’t start until Dec. 22 and ran through Jan. 26, a longer 35-day billing cycle. During that time, 20 days had overnight lows below 40 degrees, and that, they say is what led Pedley’s kilowatt hours to hit 72.9 for an average day.

It’s a head-scratcher for some, but much more serious for folks on a fixed-income.

Henry Bockelman spent nearly two decades as a power-plant operator. He says he averages about $65 a month for his electric bill. Understandable, since his apartment is relatively small.

He says when he got his latest bill — totaling $226 — he thought someone was tapping into his electricity. His usage was reportedly 1,936 kilowatt hours for an apartment with barely 800 square feet.

“I’ve been retired for 21 years, this is the first time I’ve worried about money since we retired,” said Bockelman. “And it just knocks a hole in your planning and the way you’re going to make your budget work.”

Austin Energy tracked Bockelman’s kilowatt hour usage to the day, and while Bockelman claims to set the thermostat low, the cold days in his billing cycle led to the increase.

His billing cycle was also 35 days and started Dec. 18 and ran through Jan. 22. Twenty-three of those days had overnight lows below 40 degrees, and that’s what led to his kilowatt hours going up so drastically.

“He was likely to have seen about $25 or so that would have been associated with the increase in rates, but the rest was based on a longer billing cycle and a little bit more daily consumption,” Mele said.

Because of the high number of complaints we received, we also asked about possible glitches in the meter-reading or the software that interacts with their new billing system and rate structure.

Austin Energy says since Jan. 1, they have checked more than 100 meters for accuracy and only one was a bit off, but it was actually favoring the homeowner. Finally, they say the new smart meters are the most accurate technology ever available to the electric utility industry.

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