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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — When the pandemic hit Rhode Island in 2020, the state’s largest utility company stopped sending its technicians in person to read electricity customers’ meters.

Instead, Rhode Island Energy — previously National Grid Rhode Island — relied on estimated reads, a common practice in utility billing where a company essentially guesses how much electricity a customer is using based on previous months.

Last year, Rhode Island Energy — owned by Pennsylvania-based PPL Corp. — purchased National Grid’s electricity and gas businesses, changed the name and has since been trying to catch up on a backlog of in-person reads. The cleanup has resulted in multiple small businesses getting slammed with a stack of surprise bills costing tens of thousands of dollars.

“Every dollar matters,” said Giana Dercole, whose family has owned Cola Foods for three generations. “When you think you’ve paid your electric bill for the last 12 months and then you receive an entirely new stack of bills — it’s tough to plan.”

Target 12 first reported about the billing issue in March when Providence restaurant owner Milena Pagan, owner of Little Sister, said she was sent $19,000 in surprise electricity bills. Pagan said the surprise bills have threatened her ability to keep the Hope Street restaurant open.

Since the original report aired, multiple other business owners contacted Target 12, sharing similar stories about receiving surprise bills.

“Out of the blue, I got a bill for $45,000,” said Paul Joyal, the owner of Mr. J’s Havana Cigar Lounge. Joyal opened his business right before the pandemic began, only to be shut down shortly thereafter amid COVID-related economic shutdowns.

Over the past year, he’s felt like business has finally begun to feel normal. But then he got hit with the surprise electric bills.

The business owners interviewed by Target 12 agreed they should pay for the electricity they use, but they argued the utility company should be responsible in the event they send incorrect billing amounts. Joyal compared it to if he sold a customer a cigar for one price, and then three weeks later demanded additional money.

“It’s just absolutely deplorable,” Joyal said. “I’ve been in business 52 years in this state. When you make a mistake, you own it.”

State regulators said the meter reading adjustments have resulted in an uptick in consumer calls over the past year to the R.I. Division of Public Utilities and Carriers, which is responsible for overseeing billing disputes between Rhode Island Energy and customers. In the event a disagreement can’t be resolved, a formal hearing is held where both sides get a shot at presenting a case. (A DPUC decision can then be appealed to R.I. Superior Court.)

“There are a couple of things that play into that,” DPUC spokesperson Thomas Kogut said. “Did the company act prudently in trying to read the meter or what were the issues? Is the actual usage in dispute? In our electric rules, there are very prescriptive standards for the plus or minus on any electric meter.”

So far this year, the DPUC officials said they’ve held four formal hearings, which is double the two that happened in all of 2022. But that number could continue to rise, as Rhode Island Energy has about 480,000 electric meters across the state. Regulators estimate about 1% to 2% of the meters — representing about 10,000 customers — are currently running on estimates two months or longer, meaning those customers could see some type of billing adjustment in the coming months.

Rhode Island Energy officials declined to be interviewed for this report, but spokesperson Evelyn Garcia wrote in a statement the utility is “committed to helping our customers manage their bills at all times.”

“Estimated reads are a normal process used across utilities and other industries when a customer’s meter is not working properly based on analog or remote readings,” Garcia said. “These estimates are based on historical records of usage at the same residence or business and then typically reconciled within a few months once actual reads are received. In some cases, the historical records of usage may turn out to be varied, because new equipment or appliances may have been added to a home or business that were not in use in the past.”

Currently, there’s no statute of limitations for how long the utility company can retroactively bill a customer, unless there’s a technical problem with the meter, meaning some customers get hit with costs that accrued months or years earlier. If there is a technical issue, Rhode Island can only retroactively bill up to 12 months.

R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha, whose office acts as a mediator during disputes, doesn’t currently have the ability to represent customers alone when there’s an issue. And his office is paid by the DPUC for its time. The state’s top prosecutor told Target 12 he’d like that to change in the future, saying he’d prefer the jobs be separated so the office can help individuals.

“We can be better advocates for Rhode Islanders when we’re acting on our own,” Neronha told Target 12, adding that he’s also asked his team to look into whether there are any broader legal remedies they could use to help address the issue.

“That would make sure that companies do reasonable diligence to make sure they are reading the meters, because it does put consumers and businesses in a very difficult position — no question about it,” Neronha said.

Joyal has entered into a payment plan with Rhode Island Energy, while Little Sister and Cola Foods are both waiting to have a hearing later this month. Dercole wants to see the General Assembly step in and help better protect consumers.

“I’d like to see the laws changed where they can’t do this to businesses or people in their houses,” she said.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Sarah Guernelli (sguernelli@wpri.com) is the consumer investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.

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