New York Utility Companies Admit to Billing Problems

November 15, 2022

By Liam Mayo, The River Reporter

STATEWIDE, NY — Utility companies across New York State are having difficulties in issuing timely billing for their customers.

The New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) issued an order for improvements on September 15, directing utilities to file plans for improvement of their billing processes.

At the heart of the issue is a program that is supposed to make it easier for customers to benefit from renewable energy: community-distributed generation (CDG), also known as community solar.

Consolidated billing

Community solar programs allow customers of a utility company to get savings on their electric bills. To do so, customers sign up with a solar farm that feeds the utility grid.

“This creative program creates opportunities for low- and moderate-income families… by providing increased access to electricity generated from renewable resources and lower monthly bills,” said Rory M. Christian, chair of the PSC.

The current issues with utility billing involve an attempt to streamline the process of going solar.

When the community solar program first started, solar providers and utility companies billed their customers separately.

If you signed up for community solar a few years ago, you got a bill with credits from your utility company, then a separate bill from your community solar provider, debiting you for a slightly smaller amount. The difference between the credit and the debit gave you savings on your electric bill.

Hoping to simplify that process, utilities started rolling out a new system in 2021 called consolidated billing.

Under consolidated billing, your utility company sends you one bill with two lines. The full credit amount and the smaller debit amount get applied on the same bill, giving you the same savings in a simpler package, and the community solar provider doesn’t get involved.

That’s how it’s supposed to work. Things aren’t turning out that way in practice.

Problems in practice

Delaware River Solar (DRS) is a developer with 45 community solar projects, many of them in the Sullivan County area.

DRS started hearing about problems in the consolidated billing system late in 2021. “Many community solar subscribers have experienced multi-month delays in receiving electric bills from New York State Electric and Gas (NYSEG), Rochester Gas and Electric (RG&E) and Central Hudson. While such delays are inconvenient for any utility customer, for those on a budget or a fixed income, these delays are particularly troublesome,” said DRS spokesperson Mark McLaren.

NYSEG and RG&E are sister companies that provide energy to customers in the Sullivan County area and beyond. According to company representative Kelly Packard, the companies have faced staffing shortages in areas such as customer billing and meter reading.

“These shortages have impacted our ability to bill customers, including CDG customers,” said Packard.

Packard cited as well a rebound in the solar industry since the pandemic that has increased the number of community solar projects the company has to handle. NYSEG and RG&E combined have over 55,000 community solar customers, less than 25 percent of which are currently affected by billing delays, she said.

A trepidatious timeline

The PSC’s demand for improvements included a request for a timeline for those improvements, including automation in consolidated billing. The billing process for community solar projects is currently handled manually; with an automatic system, community solar customers would have the same billing system as the utility’s other customers.

NYSEG and RG&E upgraded their billing system effective September 2022, according to an October 14 filing with the PSC. That upgrade provides a foundation for fully automated consolidated billing. NYSEG and RG&E expect to move to fully automated consolidated billing in the second quarter of 2023, though it may take up to six months for all community solar projects to transition over.

Packard anticipated that progress on billing timelines will continue in the interim, but that the manual process of community solar billing will continue to cause troubles for some customers. “Customers who have a delayed bill are always eligible to enter into a payment agreement if there is a need to pay a balance over time,” she said.

Community Solar Adoption

The difficulties with consolidated solar billing could harm the adoption of community solar in the interim—McLaren said that hundreds of DRS customers have canceled as a result of the delays in billing.

“We are concerned about any negative public perception of community solar due to the utilities’ recent billing problems,” said McLaren. “However, we have seen the utilities improve their processes over the last six months, and most customers’ utility billing has been normalized.”

“Getting the utility billing and crediting processes performing accurately and timely for these programs is of the utmost importance to ensure their success,” said Christian.

The PSC will hold a stakeholder meeting on Wednesday, November 9 to check in on the utilities’ progress with these programs, following up on its September 15 order.

Photo: The River Reporter

Originally published November 1, 2022 in The River Reporter.

Also In the News, Energy Innovation for Everyone

Learn about Delaware River Solar’s new Yellow Mills Community Solar Farm here

Rochester Gas & Electric (RG&E) subscribers can join Delaware River Solar’s new Yellow Mills Community Solar Farm here.