Feb. 26--WILKES-BARRE -- Steph Raymond, President/CEO of PPL Electric Utilities, said the high bills recently received by customers were due to a technical malfunction.
"What happened was our billing system couldn't talk to our meter system," Raymond said. "We know that this has been a challenging time for our customers. We should have and could have done better."
As PPL works through correcting all the billing issues, Raymond vowed that the utility will not shut off power to residential and small-business customers for non-payment through March 31.
In a meeting with the Times Leader Editorial Board this week, Raymond -- together with Ryan Hill, PPL's Vice President of Communications, and Alana Roberts, PPL's Manager of Community Relations -- discussed the billing issue and detailed the actions PPL is taking to support its customers.
Many PPL customers throughout the region have reported receiving unexpectedly high utility bills and the state Public Utility Commission is investigating circumstances surrounding the unusually high bills, along with the accuracy and integrity of PPL's billing practices.
The matter has been referred to the PUC's independent Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement for investigation -- which enforces the state public utility code and PUC regulations.
In addition to the investigation, the Commission continues to encourage consumers to contact PPL with concerns about the size and accuracy of their bills, and work with the utility to explore options for corrected bills, payment options and financial assistance options.
Raymond said PPL, which serves 1.4 million customers in 29 counties and employs more than 2,000, saw customer calls increase to between 6,000 and 16,000 per day, causing PPL to add staff to its call center.
Raymond said she listened to many of those calls to get an understanding of what customers were saying.
"I'm extremely proud of our customer service," she said, then adding that the customer calls increased so much that some of the calls were outsourced overseas. PPL's main call center is in Lehigh County, she said.
Raymond said PPL has kept operational costs "flat" for more than a decade.
"I will do everything I can to assure that PPL is a transparent, honest utility," Raymond said. "We will let our customers know that PPL will be the best utility we can be."
Consumers who do not believe that PPL has addressed their issues or believe that the utility has not responded appropriately to their situation, should contact the PUC's Bureau of Consumer Services (BCS) at 1-800-692-7380. Additionally, consumers who are unable to reach PPL agents or do not receive a response from PPL should contact BCS to report those issues.
Raymond said PPL will increase its campaign to explain to customers and the general public the complex market for energy.
When the high bills came out, Raymond issued a letter to the utility's customers in which she addressed the issues, and outlined steps taken by the company.
"For some of you, we have not lived up to that promise in our customer service," Raymond said in response to many PPL customers throughout the region who said they received unexpectedly high utility bills. "I can assure you that we will do everything we can going forward to provide the service that you deserve."
Raymond said as PPL adds more agents to answer calls, the company also wants customers to know that they can find many of the answers and services they need online at -- pplelectric.com -- or by using PPL's interactive voice response system.
PPL said customers can set up a payment plan online, or use the voice response system, available at 1-800-DIAL-PPL.
"Today, I'm reaching out to address these issues, including estimated bills, to share steps we're taking to support our customers, and to explain what it means for you," Raymond wrote in the letter. "I also want to take this opportunity to address higher prices for energy supply, which have been the primary driver of higher bills. While we don't control these energy supply costs, we are committed to doing what we can to help you in this challenging time."
In the meeting with the Times Leader Editorial Board, Raymond listed the actions PPL is taking to support its customers:
--PPL has resolved the technical issue that resulted in sending out a significant number of bills that were based on estimated electricity usage. Impacted customers have either already received a corrected bill with actual usage or an adjustment will be made on their next monthly bill to ensure they only pay for the electricity they used.
Some customers have said their bills were not corrected and contacted PPL.
Roberts, PPL's Manager of Community Relations, said beginning Feb. 11, PPL began to cancel those incorrect bills and issue new bills with accurate supplier charges. Roberts said the process should be completed by early March.
Roberts said customers will not be charged late fees incurred in connection with payment of the new bills and service will not be interrupted.
--By fixing the technical issue, PPL has restored customers' access to detailed usage information online at pplelectric.com.
--PPL continues to offer payment plans and assistance programs that can help if a customer is struggling to pay their electric bill. This includes self-service options that are available to you online at -- pplelectric.com/billhelp -- or by calling 1-800-DIAL-PPL.
Raymond said energy prices have risen sharply over the past two years.
Raymond and Hill, PPL's Vice President of Communications, strongly suggested that customers shop for the electricity supplier that's right for them.
They said customers should visit the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission's website -- PaPowerSwitch.com -- to shop for a better deal on electricity supply.
"Always remember to carefully read the terms and conditions to understand the price, contract term and any cancellation fees or other conditions that may apply," Hill said.
Raymond and Hill said the default rate recently went from 7 cents per kilowatt hour to 14.6 cents per kilowatt hour. They cautioned customers on companies that call or contact customers with great deals on electricity, but if customers aren't watchful of the terms of their contracts, they could see their rates increase significantly.
--Use energy efficiently. PPL's website lists tips to help customers reduce the amount of electricity used. Visit -- pplelectric.com/ways-to-save.
Raymond offered ways to reach PPL and self-service options for customers' convenience.
"As we add more agents to answer calls, we also want you to know that you can find many of the answers and services you need online at pplelectric.com or by using our interactive voice response system," Raymond said.
For instance, customers can set up a payment plan online, or by using the voice response system, available at 1-800-DIAL-PPL.
"You have a right to expect excellent service from your electric utility," Raymond said. "We know that delivering reliable electricity -- keeping the lights on for you -- must be matched by exceptional customer service. We take that very seriously.
"In recent weeks, we've fallen short of this standard in both our billing and responsiveness to customers."
Raymond, Hill and Roberts said PPL has always been involved with the community in all 29 counties the utility serves. They said they will not alter that commitment and noted that they encourage their employees to also get involved in the communities where they reside.
"We all live here," Raymond said. "It's important to get involved and support our communities."
Legislative action sought
Raymond said PPL continues to work with elected officials at all levels to enact legislation that protects consumers and to improve regulations.
"We urge our customers to reach out to their representatives and ask them to support such legislation," Raymond said.
Reach Bill O'Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.
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