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Customers voice frustration over billing issues
Software issues causing everything from sky-high bills to no bills at all have perplexed Central Hudson customers for months, leading some people to voice skepticism about a collective that negotiates on customers’ behalf for affordable green energy.
There’s no connection between the two, although the utility company may not be helping to dispel the notion.
Central Hudson, the gas and electric utility that serves the Highlands, said last month that it had been inundated with complaints from customers. Its issues began last fall when it upgraded a decades-old computer system with new software to adapt to a “cleaner energy grid” in which more customers are using energy generated from solar panels and third-party suppliers.
About 4,000 of the utility’s 308,000 customers were affected, said Joe Jenkins, a Central Hudson representative.
The errors “are on Central Hudson’s end,” Jenkins acknowledged on Wednesday (Feb. 9). He explained that some customers who are part of Hudson Valley Community Power’s Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) program “have complexities with their bills that have created issues with the new system.”
Some customers in Beacon have received inserts in recent bills with a statement from a Central Hudson official noting that the software issues have affected “certain subsets” of the customer base, the majority of whom are enrolled in “complex energy choice options” such as rooftop solar power, community solar farms and other third-party suppliers.
Those explanations don’t sit well with Jeff Domanski, the executive director of Hudson Valley Energy, which manages the 4-year-old CCA. He says the utility’s wording “sows doubt where they shouldn’t be sowing any doubt.”
“The Central Hudson bill design, which they started using in 2019, has also added to the confusion even though it was supposed to make it easier for people to understand their bill,” Domanski said this week. “It oddly emphasizes on the cover page if someone has a third-party arrangement for electricity supply, making it look like additional charges associated with the CCA from what has always been charged, which it’s not.”
A CCA is a collective that, by “buying in bulk,” negotiates electricity prices for thousands of customers from sources other than what the utility company normally provides. When a municipality joins a CCA, most of its residential and commercial customers are automatically enrolled in the program, although they can opt out at any time.
Beacon, Philipstown, Cold Spring and seven other communities comprise the Hudson Valley CCA, which has secured lower rates for green energy drawn from non-polluting sources such as solar or wind power than an individual could. Regardless of the source, a home or business’s electricity is still distributed and billed through Central Hudson.
About 7 percent of Central Hudson’s customers belong to a CCA. Another 16 percent use other third-party energy services companies, or ESCOs.
As for the people who haven’t received bills for months, Jenkins said that “every single one of those customers will have a bill by Feb. 25.” All impacted customers will have their subsequent monthly billing caught up by April 1, he added.
Confused customers aren’t the only ones who have noticed the problems. State Sen. Michelle Hinchey, a Democrat whose district includes part of the western Hudson Valley, has proposed legislation to revise the estimated billing system that utility companies use, which she says can lead to significant billing disparities.
Domanski, who noted he hasn’t received a bill at his Beacon home since September, said the CCA has gotten calls to its help line from residents in each of its partner communities “because people are paying more attention to their bills.” But, he said, “Beacon’s social media community really stands out with an unusually high number of posts from people incorrectly blaming the CCA for the higher bills they’re seeing.”
He’s used the confusion as an opportunity to educate people about the CCA by replying to dozens of social media posts and fielding irate phone calls.
During its first two years, the fixed rate negotiated by the CCA was at times higher than Central Hudson’s variable rate, although the latter only derives part of its energy from green sources. But in the last two years, Domanski said the CCA’s rate has outperformed Central Hudson’s so well that “people are definitely in the positive savings category.”
In January, Central Hudson’s variable rate was 10.9 cents per kilowatt-hour. The CCA’s renewable rate, which is fixed through June 2024, is 6.6. The CCA also offers a standard fixed rate (that’s not 100 percent renewable) that is 6 cents per kilowatt-hour.
In most cases, the public education campaign has gone smoothly. “It’s turned so many fiery, angry calls into ‘Oh, I never thought of it that way,’ ” Domanski said.