Unable after a three-week, preliminary inquiry to explain why more than 1,000 Central Maine Power customers have received inexplicably high electric bills this winter, the Maine Public Utilities Commission voted Tuesday to launch a full investigation.

The broader probe will be conducted in tandem with the ongoing inquiry underway by the PUC’s staff.

 No precise timeline was given, but the process, known as a management audit, will involve hiring at least one outside consultant to conduct a highly technical review of meter and billing operations. That all but assures a process that could take several months.

In the meantime, customers with disputed bills were offered this advice from the PUC:

In general, utility bills should be paid by their due date. However, consumers with an active payment dispute at the PUC’s consumer assistance division are encouraged to pay any portions of their bills that aren’t in dispute, a calculus that’s being made on a case-by-case basis.

“We always encourage customers to make some payments toward their bills as they have used at least some electricity,” said Harry Lanphear, the PUC’s spokesman. “This way, they don’t get too far behind once the dispute concludes. If they dispute their entire bill, then they don’t have to pay any of it during their dispute. Of course, when the dispute is resolved, they will owe whatever is determined in their individual case.”

Maine law also bars electric companies from shutting off customers between Nov. 15 and April 15, as long as they make arrangements to pay their bills. During this period, commission rules prohibit utilities from disconnecting a residential customer for non-payment, without first receiving permission from the consumer division.

The Office of the Public Advocate is asking the commission to order CMP not to disconnect any customers after the so-called winter disconnect period expires. It also requested a stay on issuing new disconnection notices, pending the outcome of the initial investigation. Those requests are under review.

CMP declined to comment after the decision, saying it would release a statement later today.

Complaints over high bills spiked in December and January and are still being filed at the PUC, but getting to the bottom of issue is complicated by several factors. The standard offer – the per kilowatt-hour price that most customers pay for their electricity supply – increased by 18 percent in January. Three weeks of brutally cold weather that coincided with the Christmas holiday season also caused electricity use to jump, a pattern seen across much of the country. Some customers who receive their electric supply from competitive providers also saw unexpectedly high rate hikes.

But hundreds of customers were shocked by bills that increased far beyond what could easily be explained by those factors. Some bills were double, triple or greater over the same period last year. The PUC alone received more than 1,000 complaints.

Seeking answers, the agency last month began an initial inquiry, called a summary audit. It filed a data request with CMP for information on about two dozen aspects of its electricity-delivery operation, including meters and the company’s new billing system, which was installed last year.

But that process apparently hasn’t come up with a full explanation, prompting the commission to take a deeper dive.

This story will be updated.

Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or

[email protected]

[email protected]

(Sun Journal file photo)

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