MI Energy Provider Under Investigation Over Faulty Meters

Lansing, MI - The Michigan Public Service Commission launched an investigation July 7, 2023 into Consumers Energy Co. (Case No. U-21458) amid persistent complaints from customers about malfunctioning natural gas meters, potential over-billing due to extended estimated meter reading, and delays in new service installations for electric and gas customers.

The MPSC has received numerous complaints from customers frustrated by malfunctioning meters that were not showing amounts of electricity used, and from customers concerned their bills have been abnormally high because of bills the company estimated in the absence of accurate meter readings. The complaints came as Consumers Energy worked to transition its advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) electric meters from using now-obsolete 3G cellular telephone technology to 4G-based meters. The MPSC in 2019 granted Consumers a waiver from technical standards and approval of alternative testing procedures for the meters being removed from service and upgraded to 4G technology.

In investigating complaints, MPSC Staff found that Consumers was estimating bills for many electric customers with 3G meters even before cellular phone companies discontinued operating 3G service in January 2023, because the meters were not working and showing blank screens. That meant neither customers nor Consumers meter readers could pull actual readings from the meters.

MPSC Staff learned Consumers had been aware of the malfunctions, which it blamed on battery contamination issues that could cause the blank screens, as far back as 2020, with more than 900,000 meters potentially at risk. But Consumers did not raise the issue when it sought the meter testing waiver in Case No. U-20639.

Concerned about this and other discrepancies in reporting meter issues, MPSC Staff raised the possibility that Consumers could be in violation of several sections of the MPSC’s Consumer Standards and Billing Practices for Electric and Natural Gas service, in particular rules regarding the required replacement of failed meter equipment, limits on how many months bills can be estimated, and the inability of customers or the utility to pull accurate electric use readings from broken meters.

The MPSC also received 177 complaints from Jan. 1, 2022, to May 1, 2023, about Consumers’ inability to meet Service Quality and Reliability Standards requirements that 90% of new service installations must be completed within 15 business days.

Among other information, this order directs Consumers to provide to the Commission by Aug. 4: 

  • An explanation of Consumers’ performance history on meter reading from 2020 to present, including the number of customers receiving consecutive meter readings beyond two consecutive months, reasons why customer bills were estimated, who was held accountable for consecutive estimated readings, and who from Consumers or its contractor provided employees to read broken meters.
  • An explanation of Consumers’ communications with customers about estimated reads, the number of complaints the utility has received, whether customers were provided information on how to read their meters, and whether customers were receiving estimated readings because of the 3G issue or because of malfunctioning meters.
  • An explanation of what Consumers is doing with write-offs owing to extended estimated billing, including where write-offs might show up in a rate case, and how the company can accurately bill customers when it is unable to get an actual meter reading.
  • An explanation of why, in Case No. U-20639, Consumers did not disclose the number of malfunctioning meters or inform the MPSC that customers would be receiving estimated meter readings until new meters were installed.
  • Data on how many 3G and 4G meters have been affected by contaminated batteries in each year in 2020 through 2023, and on how many 3G and 4G meters have been affected by other issues that caused them not to display readings.
  • An explanation of the company’s process for completing various steps required to provide new electric and natural gas service, and the average number of days it has taken to complete installations in 2019-2023.
  • For new installations not being completed in the required 15 days, an explanation why Consumers was unable to meet requirements and what steps it will take to ensure future compliance.

The Commission directed MPSC Staff to analyze the data Consumers provides and make recommendations to address issues identified in this order by Sept. 29, 2023.

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