ITHACA, N.Y. — It’s no secret that customers of New York State Electric & Gas company (NYSEG) are seeing some massive bills impact their wallets.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the main culprit is that the price of natural gas has been on the rise, which is the heating source for around two thirds of New York’s households, and is the fuel backing about two thirds of the Empire State’s electricity generating capacity

The benchmark prices of natural gas have maintained an upward trend since June 2020. The average annual price of natural gas in 2021 was 90% higher than 2020’s prices

NYSEG legally cannot charge customers more for what it costs them to acquire natural gas. The U.S. EIA is projecting that the average for 2022’s natural gas prices will remain close to 2021’s average despite prices still trending higher since January. Experts are also wary of global price instability resulting from the nations trying to kick their dependence on Russian fossil fuels in response to its invasion of Ukraine.  

NYSEG bills jumping up also have to do with a rate increase approved for the utility in Nov. 2020 by the Public Service Commission — the part of the Department of Public Service that regulates and oversees New York’s electric and gas industries.

The most recent increase in rates was in May 2021, and rates are set to increase again on May 1, 2022 to complete a 9.6% jump from NYSEG’s rates previous to May 2020, which will net the company almost an additional $127M from May 2020 to April 2023

Some of the arguments NYSEG made to the PSC to increase its rates was so it could increase staffing, bolster funding for its tree trimming programs — which many of their lines desperately need — as well as for a new piece of tech: “smart meters.”

This new-fangled-contraption, touted to have more accurate and granular readings, seems to be the solution to issues for NYSEG customers like Maureen “Moe” Colunio, who has seen some head-scratching, brow-furrowing payments come her way.

“One week my bill [estimate] was $597 for an Airbnb that has not been rented,” said Colunio, a Schuyler County resident. 

Colunio told The Ithaca Voice that this unit used for AirBnB is currently gutted and has been vacant for months since renovation work stalled due to her husband hurting his back and needing to rest. The unit is located on the second floor above her living quarters, and has its own meter.

She got the bill, and four phone calls with NYSEG representatives later, Colunio said she was told her bill would go down to $430, but when the bill actually came in the mail it was for $250 due on March 4. Colunio said she can’t make sense of it and thinks it has to be lower.

Then NYSEG sent Colunion another bill near the end of March for $343, due on the 31st. And, despite having auto pay, she said she has been getting late notices from NYSEG.

Photo by Casey Martin Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

Colunio shared part of this story at a public webinar called “Know Your Utility Rights” hosted by HeatSmart Tompkins and the Public Utility Law Project of New York (PULP) in March. The reason that Richard Berkley, the Executive Director of PULP, gave her for the bills is pretty simple. 

“I’m going to use a technical phrase: they screwed up,” said Berkley. 

Berkley suggested that she file a complaint with the New York State Department of Public Service (DPS), the state agency that oversees NYSEG and all other utility operators in New York, and said that PULP would pursue an investigation into her issues if she called their 800 number.

Colunio paid the bills while making calls throughout March and filing complaints with DPS before finally being able to speak with a NYSEG representative that could address her issues. This happened soon after The Voice reached out for comment on Colunio’s complaints.

While it is rare for NYSEG customers to be subject to these apparent billing errors, it highlights a specific shortcoming of the utility’s customer service which ratepayers have often expressed dissatisfaction with: a seeming inability to get the right person on the phone. 

When asked to explain the phenomenon of these erroneous bills NYSEG told The Voice that it doesn’t comment on specific customer complaints.

All about smart meters

NYSEG’s Ithaca division is the first area where the smart meter is rolling out. In February, the Tompkins County Council of Governments (TCCOG) received a presentation on the new piece of tech from NYSEG Manager of Government and Community Relations Gavin Mosely.

Mosley said that smart meters will use two-way wireless communication to securely detail hourly usage information for NYSEG customers. Mosley added that the meters are going to end the practice of bill estimates, stop customer reads, improve outage responses, and generate energy tracking reports that will show customers in “live time” what the trends are in their usage. NYSEG customers are supposed to be able to opt into monthly digital energy usage reports that can be delivered to email inboxes, and recommendations for decreasing energy usage.

When a person’s power goes, Mosley said, “we’re going to be able to know in real time that it’s out more to get it back on quicker.”

NYSEG Building (Photo by Casey Martin) Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

The meters are supposed to reduce the room for human error in NYSEG’s meter reading, but this is one reason why PULP opposes NYSEG’s argument.

Berkley said that the smart meters will get “union workers to save money” for NYSEG, and that during the NYSEG’s last rate case, PULP, “didn’t believe at the time that [smart meters] provided any benefit at all to customers, but the benefits for the company are quite obvious.”

“Will it lower the amount of inaccurate readings? Potentially,” said Berkley. “But one of the things to know is that when meters become inaccurate — when they’re really old — normally, what happens is the meter runs more slowly. So it under-bills. There’s an obvious reason why a utility would want to switch a meter like that out. 

According to DPS, about 11% of the funds NYSEG’s current rate increase will rake in between May 2020 and May 2023 is to be dedicated to the rollout of smart meters. Each meter is supposed to cost around $280 for residential customers and, in total, NYSEG’s investment in the installation of smart meters is supposed to come to around $361M.

This cost will be paid for by customers in their NYSEG bills, but DPS stated that $19M in benefits are expected to be passed onto customers with the transition to smart meters, which is one of the main reasons why the regulatory agency permitted the rate increase. 

NYSEG customers have the option to opt out of having a smart meter installed, although it will add an additional $13.46 a month to their utility bill. 

One cost-saving measure that Berkley brought into question was NYSEG’s ability to use smart meters to remotely shut off gas and electric remotely. This allows the utility to avoid the cost of sending a truck to a house to manually do it, but Berkley noted that according to New York State law, someone must come to your house to shut off gas or electric.

The law notwithstanding, Mosley told TCCOG in February that smart meters would give NYSEG the capability to remotely turn off gas and electric, but only remotely turn on electric.

“They would like to change the law, but that’s bad,” said Berkley. “And they laid off union workers to save money in this area.”

Berkley suggested that anyone who has a complaint they would like to file against their utility visit PULP’s website.

For those struggling with their bill, NYSEG encourages those customers struggling with their bills to explore the available assistance and payment programs.

For those looking to commiserate with someone over the jump in their utility bill, Colunio said she found some sympathy with one of the NYSEG reps she’s spoke with on the phone over the last month.

“Every time I get a bill, I call NYSEG, and I apologize to the young lady that answers the phone, because I might cuss at her and I might call her names, but it’s nothing to do with her,” said Colunio, laughing. “And she says she gets an electric bill and her electric bill is also doubled. And she doesn’t understand it!”

Correction (04/08/2022): This article originally said that the most recent increment of NYSEG’s rate increase was in December 2021. The last increase was actually in May of 2021.

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at jjordan@ithacavoice.com Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn