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Xcel customers face big bills after glitch

Some Xcel Energy customers must pay natural gas bills costing hundreds more than they may have anticipated.

The company last winter failed to receive electronic readings from gas meters of about 4,400 North Dakota residences, said Bonnie Lund, Xcel's senior communications rep in the state.

That equals about 10 percent of all North Dakotans whom Xcel serves, and customers must now retroactively pay for the energy Xcel approximates they used.

"It would be difficult to receive a bill like this, but ... we simply can't provide the service at no cost," Lund said.

Xcel is sending letters to each affected account holder to tell of the snag, a process slowed because the company must examine each account separately, Lund said.

The retroactive charges are based on a client's energy use in one of the past two years, Lund said. Xcel will charge the lowest of the two years' amounts for the same period in which the meter reading failed this year.

Lund said the billing method is fair: "Weather is colder this year than it was those previous two years."

In December, Jon Woltmann of Fargo noticed his bill - which did not reflect his total energy usage due to the meter reading failure - was lower. He thought it was because he had turned his heat down.

"They're relying an awful lot on how this electronic meter reading goes, and I don't think they go out and read the meters enough" in person, Woltmann said.

The length of time that customers' meter readings failed varied, Lund said.

An Xcel-provided, unaddressed letter said the glitch happened after the meter-reading date of Jan. 27, and was corrected Feb. 11.

A Forum-obtained letter had a start date after Nov. 13 and a Feb. 27 end date.

The letters state that "little or no usage was registering on your meter during the period listed above," and that an attached summary outlines Xcel's calculated bill.

Lund said Xcel discovered the problem in February or March and that estimating how much more an average customer will pay due to the error is difficult.

"I don't know if there's any comparison we can do in a mass way," Lund said.

The Forum-obtained letter for one customer had an estimated cost of about $727 for the wayward time period.

More specifically, the meters were not read because the wireless modules that receive the data. Only natural gas - no electric - meters erred.

Lund said about 3,600 customers were affected in Fargo, Moorhead, West Fargo and Dilworth. The company is checking 1,000 other meters that also may have failed.

She did not know how many letters Xcel has sent, but said there are a number of customers yet to go.

The malfunction occurred only in North Dakota and Minnesota for Xcel, which serves eight Midwest and Western states.

For more information

Customers affected by Xcel Energy's meter reading failures can call (800) 895-4999 about payment options, including an installment plan that does not charge interest.