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Xcel billing issues in North Dakota spotlight

BISMARCK - A newly-elected North Dakota Public Service Commission member is taking a serious look at billing or meter problems occurring at the state's largest utility.

Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk, who took office Jan. 1, is asking questions about Xcel Energy's use of estimated bills for multiple months this winter, which have resulted in electric heat bills this month of up to $900 for some residential customers and similar jolts for a few natural gas customers.

Late last year, the incumbent commissioners, Tony Clark and Kevin Cramer expressed frustration over the company's admission that it had experienced a third major billing problem in less than two years.

Kalk said at Wednesday's PSC meeting that he's asked the office staff and Xcel to spend the next two weeks gathering information on the latest incidents. At the next regular commission meeting Feb. 25, he may ask the commission to order an investigation.

"I am concerned about the problem not being resolved and North Dakota consumers continue to suffer as a result of seemingly preventable problems," he said.

Kalk said he got a call from the mayor of Thompson, N.D., who alerted him that a "significant" number of the town's residents had gotten estimated bills for multiple months and "once the meters were read, it was determined that the estimated amount (had been) highly inaccurate and the residents owed a lot more than the company estimated."

The current issue stems largely from two factors - the unusually severe winter that limited meter readers' ability to do their routes or reach meters, and the fact that Xcel has not yet installed automated meter reading technology in many smaller cities it serves, as it has done in the large cities.

The company hesitates to send its meter readers out in dangerous temperatures, visibility or ice conditions, said Mark Nisbet, Xcel's North Dakota principal manager. The company also had employees quit or on sick leave late last year.

The company told the PSC on Wednesday that "As of Jan. 31 ... approximately 860 North Dakota customers received three or more consecutive estimated bills."

According to Xcel's information Wednesday, only 9.1 percent of Thompson's meters were read in December, 47.6 were read in November and 88 percent were read in January. Hatton, N.D., had a similar record in January, when only 7.1 percent of meters were actually read, and in Emerado, only 14.6 percent of meters were read in November.

In sharp words at the Nov. 26 PSC meeting, Clark wondered if "there's something going on at Nicollet Mall," a reference to Xcel's corporate headquarters address in Minneapolis, and Cramer came down even harder, saying he's "growing weary of dealing with Xcel Energy's mess-ups. There's another word that comes to mind. And I think there has to be a limit to how much sloppiness we're expected to tolerate and certainly how much the rate payers are expected to tolerate."