Unexpectedly high natural gas bills catch customers off guard

Black Hill Energy says a meter-reading glitch required catch-up billing

Sure Thing Burger owner Scott Picard sits in his restaurant with Black Hills Energy documents in Willits Town Center on Thursday, March 17, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Some residents of the midvalley were caught off guard by getting unexpectedly high bills from Black Hills Energy for January.

Some residential and business users were billed three to six times higher than usual for their natural gas consumption with no explanation. Some of those who inquired with the energy company were told inaccurate readings from the meters were discovered. Users were being billed for natural gas consumed but hadn’t been paid for yet.

“The person on the phone said, ‘You used it, you’re going to have to pay for it,'” said Tammy Picard, who co-owns and operates Sure Things Burger at Willits with her husband, Scott.

When Glenwood Springs homeowner Michael Faughn posted about his spiked charge March 10 on the Roaring Fork Swap Facebook page, he had 45 replies from people reporting similar experiences before the group site administrator disabled replies. Faughn said his bill went from $88 the prior January to $553 this January, an increase of more than six times.

In a follow-up post, Faughn wrote that a Black Hills customer service representative told him that a previous meter reading was inaccurate so they were correcting it.

Ashley Campbell, Black Hill Energy’s regional manager for community outreach, confirmed that inaccurate readings affected some customers after transmitters on meters were replaced as part of routine maintenance.

“When transmitters were changed out, in some cases, the trucks were not picking up the reading from the meters — though the meter was collecting the amount of gas being used starting from the date of installation,” Campbell said in an email to The Aspen Times. “During this time, customers may have seen very low bills with just the set fees. When the issue was identified and corrected, the meter reading showed a few months of usage and customers were then billed for those few months at one time.”

Campbell was unable to provide the number of customers affected in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Scott Picard said he wants to know more about the alleged inaccurate readings but hasn’t been able to learn anything from Black Hills. He wants to know when the inaccurate readings occurred and how many months it affected.

“You’re left to wonder who’s right and who’s wrong,” he said.

He said there was one lower than usual bill, for the month of August. The restaurant was billed $15.50, but that doesn’t explain a higher charge for January.

The Picards keep meticulous track of their business expenses so they were able to compare gas usage over several years. They pay their gas bill via auto-pay but Scott noticed “a crazy blip” for the Jan. 7 to Feb. 7 billing period. He dug up records from past years to compare.

In this January, Black Hill billed him for use of 953 therms. In past years, the restaurant’s usage was between 300 and 400 therms.

The bill for this January was $1,237 compared to a bill of $410 for the similar period the year before.

The billing was back in line with past years for February. For February 2021, Sure Thing Burger paid $410 and for February 2022 it paid $473.

“There were back payments that they didn’t explain,” Tammy Picard said. “That community outreach gets an F.”

Scott Picard said he was able to handle the balloon payment but he is concerned how certain households, such as those with one income earner, were coping.

BHE’s Campbell said any customer with questions or concerns about the readings should call the company’s customer service team. “They’re able to work with the individual customer to take a closer look and, in these cases, they’re able to create payment arrangements over the agreed upon period of time,” Campbell’s statement said.

In an interview, Campbell said other factors are also driving up natural gas bills, primarily supply and demand.

“That community outreach gets an F.” — Tammy Picard, co-owner of Sure Thing Burger

A price increase of between 32% and 45% for many customers was approved by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission and went into effect Nov. 1, Campbell said. She said that the higher cost is a “pass-through” that reflects higher prices Black Hills is paying to its suppliers and the company doesn’t profit from it.

Following an interview, Campbell added in an email, “It’s also important to note that energy utility customers across the country — not just here in Colorado — are seeing higher monthly bills recently due, in large part, to an increase in the cost of natural gas as well as the temporary charges related to last February’s (Winter) Storm Uri.”

That storm, which affected most of the country and hit Texas particularly hard Feb. 13-17, 2021, will result in further price adjustments starting in April. Demand soared during a record-breaking cold spell and gas use escalated. Gas providers are trying to recoup some of the extra costs they incurred.

Campbell said the average customer in the Roaring Fork Valley would see an additional charge of $12 per month for one year to offset expenses Black Hills experienced during the storm.