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Unfair to Partly Cloudy

All I wanted were some simple definitions. That’s all. What I thought would be a short journey to a glossary or dictionary became an odyssey through bureaucracy, phone systems and legal publications. It all started when I opened my February Niagara Mohawk bill.

Usually I note the total, check the bar charts displaying my energy usage over the last year, and review the figures for current average daily energy usage and the amount used one year ago. For some unknown reason, my eyes bobbed up the page, crossed a dark line and entered the realm of charges. I skimmed them and their amounts. I turned back to the previous bill page and found it solid with charges. There were 21 charges summed on my bill, including tariffs, taxes and adjustments, many of which I knew nothing about. Some definitions were on the back of the bill, but some of these left me with more questions than answers.

One of the charges that particularly intrigued me was “adjustment for changes from normal weather.” Considering the global warming effects taking place, I wondered how they defined “normal weather.” I figured a short Internet voyage should yield answers, so I set my course for the cyberspace of the New York State Public Service Commission (www.ask PSC.com), the state agency responsible for regulating charges on our utility bills.

The PSC Web site included a model bill with explanations that didn’t lead me any closer to their definition of “normal” weather. The site has a box to leave notes, so I asked for more details on the weather adjustment and six other charges I found missing or poorly defined on their model bill. A few days later, e-mail from the PSC informed me that I appeared to have “a problem with a utility company that we regulate,” but that they needed more information to process my complaint.

I replied, asking them to have a human read my original note so they could see that I was just seeking information. A few days later, I received a letter indicating that a PSC Consumer Services representative had been assigned to my case, which from here on would become number 204627. I was given a toll-free number for questions.

Around this same time, a Niagara Mohawk representative left a phone message that they had learned of my case from the PSC, and that a NiMo rep would be assigned my case and “will get back to you.” I rattled my keyboard to www.niagaramohawk.com and didn’t find the info I was seeking there either. I decided to abandon my Internet voyage for the dreaded world of telephone answering systems.

I called the number on the PSC letter and quickly got stuck in a phone system circle, as no option was offered that covered what I was looking for: just information. After spinning through the system a few times, I decided to go for the consumer complaint option, since this was what they called my inquiry. I got forwarded to a response that regretted to inform me that the PSC closed at 4 PM (it was 4:20). I wondered why an agency serving the public closed so early.

The next day, I tried again at 3:48 PM and was put on hold by a system that cycled through a short set of PSC messages. When I finally got a human, there were only a few minutes left before the agency would slam shut for the day. I told the “specialist” that all I wanted were some definitions. He told me that my inquiry would be sent to the utility company (it apparently already had, based on the NiMo call I’d gotten). I reiterated that I just wanted some definitions of bill charges. He said an investigation would be conducted. I asked for his supervisor, and his phone went silent for a short while. He returned with a phone number his supervisor thought would lead to the answers sought. I’d have to call another day, however, since the agency was folding up as 4 PM tolled.

The next morning, I tried the magic number and began bouncing like a pinball through a series of phone forwardings. I started out in the PSC’s information services, where the agency’s computer operations reside, and no one there had the info I sought. I then bounced to a file room where a helpful spirit named Janis bounced me in the right direction, toward the Office of Electricity. A couple of phone forwardings later, I spoke with a human being who had the information I sought. A packet of documents arrived in my mailbox a few days later.

Inside the packet were documents full of definitions, surcharge factors and charge calculation formulas. One was headed “weather normalization adjustment,” the charge that had prompted my quest. This “adjustment” is applied during the months of October through May. “Normal” weather is defined in units called heating degree days. By taking a day’s high temperature, adding it to its low temperature, dividing this sum by two and subtracting the remainder from 65 degrees, you get a day’s heating degree days.

According to the PSC and NiMo, “normal weather” is calculated as the 30-year average heating degree days for a billing period. Thirty years brings you back to 1972, days of much cooler winters. Current and “normal” figures are put through further calculations to produce a “weather adjustment factor,” which is then multiplied against the energy used during the period the bill covers to produce the charge.

I looked over past bills and found the weather charge over the last two billing periods went from 53 cents to $3.70 (the same period 22 cents in 2001). While I used less energy for heat (natural gas is my backup to firewood) in the second billing period, the “adjustment for changes from normal weather” made this period in which I used less energy actually cost more.

I’ll share more wonders from my utility bill in future columns. In the meantime, check out your bill!

—Tom Nattell


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