House begins inquiry of Puerto Rico power utility’s billing practices after Hurricane Maria
SAN JUAN – The Puerto Rico House of Representatives’ Consumer, Banking & Insurance Affairs Committee, chaired by Rep. Yashira Lebrón, began public hearings Thursday to investigate complaints by subscribers against the Electric Power Authority (Prepa) regarding utility bills that reflect energy usage while service was not being provided from the grid after Hurricane Maria.
At the beginning of work on House Resolution 54, whose purpose is to inquire about Prepa’s invoices that reflect greater than actual consumption, the representative said Prepa indicated 9,506 claims were filed, of which 5,000 have been addressed. “Prepa usually sees 400 to 500 people a day in their offices; currently they are seeing about 2,000 people daily for a bill review.”
Rep. Lebrón said members of her office visited a Prepa branch office in Levittown, Toa Baja, on Wednesday to collect data for the legislative hearing and realized that of the nearly 200 people there, 50 were paying bills. “The vast majority were there to challenge the bill and file complaints, because the large increase in overbilling is incredible. They returned with photos and subscriber statements from people who usually pay a flat fee of $100 or $200 [for electricity] and were charged $700. They were people who did not have electric service,” she said in a written statement.
Sonia Ivelisse Salgado, a communicator by profession, testified that four years ago she installed eight solar panels on the roof of her home to reduce costs for electricity consumption. She said her bill dropped from about $400 to $3 and up to $10, but not more than $50.
“After Hurricane Maria, this bill returned to $400,” she said when making a comparison of bills before and after Maria. Engineer Rodolfo Serrano, lead engineer at NEO ERA Solutions, who was in charge of installing her photovoltaic panels, said “the cells were in good condition after the hurricane and there was no reason for the increase in the invoice.”
“It is unacceptable for bills to arrive as if we had never put a panel on the roof. Since Maria, I have not seen a single meter reader around my house,” she said.
Meanwhile, Rep. Lebrón stated she had expected to hear explanations from Prepa and about the Ombudswoman’s efforts, since they were cited to testify at the hearing, “but they requested more time to appear at this forum.”
She indicated they will be summoned to appear Monday at 10 a.m. and noted “this time [if they do not come], they will not be excused. They confirmed their attendance, and we hope it will be so, to clarify and collect data, and verify what is correct and what is not.”
While lawyer Tania Negrón of the Puerto Rico Energy Commission, indicated Prepa has not submitted the required information on overbilling complaints. She argued that “inadequate billing by Prepa has the effect of aggravating the emergency we continue to experience in Puerto Rico.”
On the other hand, she assured that any customer can object to or challenge any charge, misclassification of rate type, mathematical calculation or adjustment of the invoice, and request investigation by Prepa within 30 days of receiving the invoice.
The lawyer also explained, in response to questions from Lebrón, that under Prepa regulations, customers must exhaust Prepa’s informal bill review procedures before requesting review by the Energy Commission.
José Pérez Vélez, of the Independent Office of Consumer Protection, indicated that during the past few days, his agency has received 2,500 calls from subscribers about residential rates, requesting guidance related to Prepa’s most recent invoices.