AUSTIN (KXAN) - The KXAN Investigates team has been flooded with calls and emails about their Austin Energy bills doubling, even tripling following our news reports on billing spikes over the last two weeks.
So, KXAN dug deeper and went straight to the top of Austin Energy for answers.
On average, it was warmer in December and January than in years past. So why do so many people seem to have a problem with their electric bill? Our investigation found these warm winter temperatures can actually be deceiving for those thinking they’re using less energy.
“I was shocked,” Donna Kay told KXAN after looking at her January bill from Austin Energy. “I thought it was incorrect.”
Kay said she hasn’t had a bill higher than $281 for all of 2012. Her bill for the period of Dec. 20, 2012, through Jan. 25, 2013, was $581. Austin Energy told her the increase was because she and husband used more kilowatts during the billing period, she said.
“You know the usage shouldn't have been that high,” said Dean Sharp after he also experienced a higher-than-normal bill for the same period as Kay.
Sharp scratched his head as he looked over the last 15 months of his energy bills.
Henry Bockelman has a similar story.
“I said, ‘these people have lost their minds,'” Bockelman told KXAN after seeing a big spike in his January bill.
Kay, Sharp, and Bockelman are among the numerous people who've called and emailed KXAN about their Austin Energy bills. They have told KXAN they’ve seen bills double, triple, and even quadruple the amount from the month before.
The callers and emailers all say they’ve gotten the same explanation: “It was cold and people used more heat.”
“We had periods of cold weather during December and January that I think frankly some of us sort of forget about,” the city-owned utility's spokesman Ed Clarke said during an interview for a recent KXAN report.
The Weather Team weighs in
So we decided to get some perspective from our KXAN Weather Team and compare this winter to years past to determine just how cold it’s been.
Our KXAN weather team’s data shows December 2012 was the ninth warmest December in more than 150 years. In fact, the entire month of December was the fourth warmest average temperature on record, at 68.9 degrees.
And January's average temperature was 2.1 degrees warmer than the normal.
However, the overall monthly averages of these last two winter months have been 3 degrees cooler than December of 2011 and January of 2013. But many Austin Energy customers say they haven’t used their heaters much and are baffled by the billing spikes.
“We had the furnace turned-off for so much of that month,” said Dave Pedley, who claims his heater was turned off for almost 2 weeks straight in December.
Pedley has lived in the same house for 17 years knows how to read his electric bill. He immediately noticed his bill was $158 more than the previous month, but Pedley also looks directly at kilowatt hours used per day.
“The average per day use was 72 kilowatt hours and I can't understand how that can be,” said Pedley.
The word from a top Austin Energy exec
So we took the electric bills from Donna Kay, Dean Sharp, Henry Bockelman, and Dave Pedley straight to the top of Austin Energy. Chief Operating Officer Cheryl Mele says their bills are accurate.
“We can clearly see that on the days when the temperature is in the 70’s in the afternoons their consumption is much less than it is on the days where it never climbs above 60,” said Mele.
Austin Energy says while Dave Pedley may have had his furnace off for a few days early in the month, his billing cycle didn't start until Dec. 22 and ran through Jan. 26, which is a longer 35 day billing cycle. During that time, there were 20 days with overnight temperatures below 40 degrees and that, Austin Energy says, is why Pedley's bill shows an average daily use of 72.9 kilowatt hours.
Pain, confusion for ratepayers
The billing confusion is a much more serious situation for folks like Henry Bockelman, living on a fixed income.
Bockelman spent nearly two decades as a power-plant operator so he too knows a little about electricity. He says his energy bills average about $65 a month for his small 2 bedroom apartment.
He said he doesn’t recall getting a bill higher than $100 in the three years he’s lived there. But Bockelman says when he got his latest bill for $226, showing he used 1936 kilowatt hours he thought someone was tapping in to his electricity.
“I've been retired for 21 years,” said Bockelman. “This is the first time I've worried about money since we retired and it just knocks a hole in your planning and the way you're going to make your budget work,” he continued.
Austin Energy showed KXAN Bockelman’s kilowatt hour usage for every day in his billing cycle. While Henry claims to set the thermostat low, Austin Energy claims the cold days in his billing cycle led to the increased energy consumption.
Bockelman’s billing cycle was also 35 days, from Dec, 18 through