Duke Energy Complaints

Duke Energy - Refuse to install a line surge protector

2009-09-25 13:20:38 by Karen Parker
The following events portray one example of how Duke Energy seems to be actively engaged in the process of undermining access to alternative energy for people of moderate to lower income levels.

One possible objective of this behavior is to allow them to maintain their practical monopoly of energy access until they can fully implement various programs; including installing solar panels on homes and businesses which they will "lease" to the building owners. This falls in line with an over-arching plan to charge prices that bring all Kilowatts, regardless of origin or cost of generation to the same price, whether from coal, solar, wind, hydro or nuclear sources.

Duke Energy is considered a Public Utility. This should mean it operates under the auspices of the State and local governments and in consideration of the best interest of the general public. In our experience, this is not the case.

August 31, 2009

To: The Board Members of the North Carolina Public Utilities Commission,

As consumers, and more recently modest producers of energy, we would like to make you aware of our concerns and recent experiences with Duke Energy. In the interest of clarity, we will provide you a chronology of our experience so that you can better understand our situation. We would also like to help you gain insight into the challenges individuals seeking household energy independence confront.

We have encountered many hurdles along the way. But we consider it important to convey to the Commission what seems to be, on the surface, an opportunity for an individual or family to provide a portion of their basic energy needs with a relatively modest initial investment. However, in process and practice, this seeming opportunity does more to allow corporate interests to prosper from our investment. This can result, as in our experience, in greater energy cost to the individual household.

In the last quarter of 2007 we determined that, for various reason, we should install PV solar energy as a renewable means of supplementing our home electric utility needs. Following several meetings with our installer we contracted to have a 1.25 kw system installed on our property. The installing contractor has several decades of experience installing systems, from single family units to large commercial systems throughout the southeast. We found him to be quite knowledgeable regarding both PV solar and electrical systems in general. Holding both unlimited electrical license and general contracting licenses.

We determined, with guidance from our installer, we would benefit from the NC GreenPower program and were made aware of the approaching deadline for registering our project in order to receive the maximum return. So quickly we moved ahead with our PV project; sending in a deposit to our contractor on February 18. As well as registering with NC GreenPower prior to the rate reduction deadline.

On March 18th we contacted Duke Energy via telephone requesting assistance for both new underground service and interconnection. We were assigned a work request and a field engineer; who only later confided he had no experience with PV interconnection. According to him, this was typically “handled by someone else in the office”. Despite several visits to the site to inspect work, our assigned Duke Energy engineer was of no help with respect to the interconnection; since no one had conveyed our request to him. While we had all the necessary and required elements installed properly; we were then informed that we had not completed all the necessary forms. We had no idea, nor were we informed at any point prior by Duke Energy or NC Green Power, that anything other than our initial application was required for the project to precede to system interconnection.

We were made aware of this shortcoming prior to the end of May. With only a month to have the system operational and meet the deadline prior to the rate decrease. We filled out all forms (including our application to PUC) as completely as possible upon receipt and returned them the following day by registered mail.

We were soon contacted by a Duke Energy representative and told certain corrections and additions were necessary to our interconnection application. The forms to be corrected were returned to us by common mail. We made all additions and corrections as requested and as quickly as possible. At or around this time, the aforementioned deadline passed, reducing our potential income by 3 cents per kw hour.

Within a week we were approved for the interconnection. A second engineer was assigned to our project. He also confided he had no experience with solar interconnection. Although, he explained, someone else in his office did. Curiously the individual with relevant experience was (again) not assigned to our project. This second engineer subsequently determined the equipment, as installed, was not correct according to Duke Energy standards. Although could not or would not explain, on paper or even via email, what this shortcoming was. Instead, he mandated changes to the interconnection hardware that were considered unnecessary and convoluted by our installer, who realized the only path to our being interconnected was to make the additions to the system directed by the Duke Energy representative. To his credit our installer, at his own cost, undertook the additional work and equipment required by the Duke Energy Engineer.

Finally, around the first week in August, during an inspection meeting at our home between our contractor/installer, a Duke Energy contract employee, the Duke Energy engineer, and 3 Iredell County Code Inspectors (one a level III electrical inspector and licensed contractor), a resolution regarding the equipment modifications was reached in the field. After lengthy discussion, a compromise was reached and the equipment was approved in a configuration largely consistent with our installer's original design; though not as engineered by him. Once the interconnection issues were resolved, we were then notified by the Duke Energy Engineer the system could not be energized until the interconnection meter was installed. This would take an additional week to 10 days.

The interconnection meter monitoring PV output to the grid was installed within the week and the following week the system was energized. The lag prior to energizing the system was due to Duke Energy (or their installer) not providing notification of the meter installation or of it being operational. When we were able to coordinate with our installer to, once again, travel to our home to energize the system. We began producing
power officially August 15th.

However, the interconnection turned out to be only the initial phase of our experience as electricity producers partnered with Duke Energy. We then had to deal with the monthly billing related to our interconnection with the Duke Energy grid.

On 9/4/08 we received our initial statement from Duke Energy. It stated we had delivered $30.27 worth of energy to Duke Energy's system via interconnection.

On 09/10/08 we received a “corrected bill” stating that we now owed Duke Energy $4.82. This statement has been “corrected” via a folder label affixed to the top with the words “CORRECTED BILL” typed on it with a manual typewriter.

On 09/12/08 we received a check from Duke Energy for $30.27.

Naturally, without cover letters or explanation for any of the changes, corrections, checks or miscellaneous charges, we were confused and disappointed that apparently selling renewable power to Duke Energy would result in an out of pocket expense each month.

We contacted Steve W. Smith, Duke Energy Wholesale Customer Relations, Accounts, and Non-Utility Generation, via email regarding the corrected statement and found him to be quite unhelpful. We found his attitude defensive and his interest in providing a meaningful explanation of the statements and their content, lacking. He did explain what we were already able to ascertain; that the calculations differed by a factor of 10. He did not explain how this mistake occurred, since the metering is digitally monitored, via cell connection. He was also unable to provide clarity regarding miscellaneous charges to our account, including a facilities charge which is explicitly excluded from our contract with Duke Energy. He made the assertion that the facilities charge billed each month was “another completely different charge” since it was for the meter. He has refused, to date, to provide documentation of the validity of this charge.

In the interest of good faith, and realizing we had limited alternatives we sent the $4.82 check to Duke Energy on 09/22/08.

On 10/03/08 we received our second monthly statement (actually a bill) from Duke Energy. This item states that in addition to the $30.27 from the previous month's “corrected bill” along with September's facilities and administrative charges offset by the credited energy provided, we owed Duke Energy $37.61. After receiving the statement I contacted Mr. Smith requesting contact information for his supervisor. He would not provide this information and after my second request we determined to keep a log of events to document our experiences. Again, in good faith, I tendered a net amount to Duke Energy since clearly the requested amount was inconsistent and incorrect.

Following this exchange billing became consistent and, while disagreeing with at least one of the charges being levied, we were generating power and realizing some return via GreenPower payments.

On November 8th 2008, we received a statement from Duke Energy which indicated we had generated no power for the month. We then had our system checked by our installer. Apparently the inverter failed. Our installer personally inspected the system and determined a line surge was the likely reason and replaced the inverter. (This is the 1st inverter he has ever found need to replace in his experience working with renewable energy systems.) He did this at his own expense. Once replaced our system again functioned properly; although we had lost 6 weeks of service awaiting the inverter replacement.

Several weeks later, we were awoken by a Duke Energy employee arriving at our home prior to 8 AM to “check the meter”; which was apparently not transmitting data properly. This particular meter was then removed and replaced within a week of this inspection. I was later told by Mr. Smith, each meter records at 15 minute intervals and maintains these readings as a permanent record of the interconnection. Once removed and a new meter placed in service, the data is lost.

In a recent telephone conversation, Mr. Smith admitted that there were gaps in our generation data that coincide with the meter change. So it is likely there is no verifiable record of our power generation. In fact, it can be argued, we were generating power without it being recording due to the faulty meter. But no acknowledgment has been made by Mr. Smith of the meter change-out occurring.

During the first half of 2009 our equipment apparently worked properly; and the quarterly checks from GreenPower offset the monthly payments to Duke for operation of our PV system.

However, in July 2009 while checking operation codes, it was clear the inverter was not interconnected. We contacted Duke Energy requesting assistance and a lineman was dispatched to our home. This individual was a Duke Energy employee; but was unaware that we are a power generator. He had no working knowledge of PV, GreenPower, or interconnection. While we would simply consider this typical of our experience with Duke Energy, we also considered it of concern from a safety standpoint. The lineman could have been injured or killed if he was unaware that energy was moving from our PV collector onto the Duke power grid if servicing an outage up the line from our home. We are charged each month by Duke Energy for administrative fees, which we were told are necessary to monitor the interconnection. In this instance, no Duke Employee considered it essential to apprise their colleague of the potential danger of power moving back through the grid from our home.

The following day we contacted Duke Energy to verify the meter was operating properly (since there had been an earlier failure). We considered this to be a relatively simple procedure, since we must pay a monthly service charge for a meter which can be remotely read. Mr. Gardner, the engineer told us our system had not transferred any power for the preceding 6 weeks. This was most upsetting to my wife and I both. When Mr. Smith contacted us he reassured us that, while Mr. Gardner was the primary metering engineer, he was incorrect regarding the length of time our system had been down. Mr. Smith asserted that it was only for a few days. Less reassuring was Mr. Smith's explanation that Mr. Gardner probably based his determination on night-time readings of the solar metering, which...”would show no power generation, since it was dark”.

We then requested assistance from our installer and Mr. Smith in order to clarify the condition of our system. Each, independently, stated the likely cause was a surge of power. Both stated the most likely source was a line surge originating in the primary power grid. While both suggested the possibility of lightning being a cause, each conveyed this as the less likely reason for the damage to our 2nd inverter. We questioned the extent of Duke Energy's responsibility in the event that a line surge from Duke's grid has caused both incidents resulting in damage to our system. Particularly in the context of the requirement that we annually provide verification of liability insurance in the event of damage to Duke Energy equipment from our system. Mr. Smith stated Duke Energy provides no safeguards to protect against damage to any equipment on our property; and does not intend to despite our formal request to do so. (Surge protection is apparently a relatively simple and inexpensive solution suggested to us by our installer.) Along with his denial of our request for surge protection from the Duke Energy grid, Mr. Smith no longer acknowledges his initial determination of a power surge.

When I discussed this situation with our installer his reaction was that he was very concerned and now hesitant to place PV systems with interconnection in rural areas (“at the end of the line” ). This concern appears to be justified in the context of our experience. Interconnection was presented to us as an avenue that allowed us to begin a path toward a degree of energy responsibility and independence. Once in place, we felt that within 5 years we would find the means to provide additional panels to increase our generating capacity, while also adding a UPS system thus allowing us make our home energy self sufficient.

We feel we have no recourse but to file a complaint with the Commission because, to date, we only have a single contact at Duke Energy; who has until recently refused to share his immediate superior's name and contact information. We now understand that GreenPower is completely dependent upon corporate energy concerns for funding and thus has no interest or mandate to be an advocate for small producers. And our continuing frustration and mounting costs present us with no other options for expression, assistance, or resolution.

Our issues are as follows:

1) We request independent clarification regarding the facilities charge. Mr. Smith suggested that our contractor should have explained this expense to us prior to installation. When contacted our contractor/installer's response was, that in his experience, Duke Energy would be the only company requiring a facilities charge for a meter. Nowhere in the body of the contract is this charge acknowledged or presented for approval.

2) We take issue with being charged administrative fees by Duke Energy when competent administration of service, billing and bookkeeping has often been inconsistent and likely excessive relative to the amount of legitimate administration required. Mr. Smith contends the cost is allowed and is intended to offset administrative cost of sending a monthly bill. But it also appears the process is intended to justify itself. Clearly it is unnecessary to send a 3 page statement in an 9x12 accordion style mailer every month with our bill for providing energy. This information is collected each month electronically and there is no legitimate reason this cannot also be the case when providing billing statements and production records to us.

3) We obviously have no proof, but harbor the suspicion that Duke Energy had no intention of facilitating a timely interconnection. The challenges we encountered having the system energized made it clear there was little consideration for a modest residential producer making the effort to maximize return on investment. Further, Greenpower offers no advocacy for producers or citizens; the director made it clear GreenPower's dependence on funds from Duke and other corporate interests prevented any initiative to assist us.

4) We would like an ombudsperson be made available to individuals such as ourselves. So that others are not placed in a similar situation. Mr. Smith acting unilaterally, and having refused repeated requests for contact information for his supervisor, has been less than helpful. And as an agent of Duke Energy likely not acting in our household's interest.

Lastly, our experiences with Duke Energy during the past 18 months; even with energy credits from NC GreenPower do not appear to offset our fees to Duke Energy. This leaves little of the optimism with which we began our project. And leads us to discourage others interested in addressing energy independence on a household level. When we made the decision to begin providing for our household energy needs we were both working and had a modest amount of savings to invest. We chose to invest in a PV system. We are now one year into our endeavor and one of us is no longer employed. The other has changed careers to a more secure occupation (though at a reduced salary) and we have exhausted our savings. Most distressingly, we have been told we now must have a third inverter installed to re-energize our system. We were told by both our installer and by Mr. Smith, “just turn it into the insurance” – but, replacing 2 inverters in the first year does not bode well for the future of our system. Or for the likelihood that insurance would potentially cover 28 more inverters ($2400 each wholesale) over the 15 year lifespan of the system.

So now, instead of looking to expand our system, we hold on to a meager hope that we can make it merely operational again.

Our hope, in preparing this complaint and sharing our experiences, is to help you better understand the challenges an average household can encounter when seeking to become energy independent.

An engineer who works in the renewable energy sector out of Washington D.C. said to me recently,” no matter how good a renewable energy idea is - corporate utility interests hold all the cards – it's their playground”.

Thank you for your consideration of our situation.
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