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