Staff at the Maine Public Utilities Commission on Thursday granted a request from the Maine Office of the Public Advocate to conduct more tests of Central Maine Power’s error-prone billing system, as complaints continue to come in from electricity customers.

An independent auditor for the PUC, Liberty Consulting Group, examined data for an estimated 650,000 accounts during a monthslong review prompted by thousands of complaints about inflated bills from CMP customers. But the audit examined CMP’s billing and metering system only through April 2018.

On Thursday, the PUC granted the request by the Office of the Public Advocate for an additional examination of bills from May 2018 to the present as part of the commission’s ongoing investigation into billing issues. Public Advocate Barry Hobbins, whose office represents ratepayer interests in PUC proceedings, estimates the study would involve analyzing billing and electricity usage on more than 1,500 accounts based on complaints filed since spring 2018.

Public Advocate Barry Hobbins asked the Public Utilities Commission for permission to do new testing of Central Maine Power’s billing system. Tux Turkel/Staff Writer

“The bottom line is we are looking for a silver bullet but even if we can’t find one, I believe the Maine ratepayers deserve a full, thorough review of the (complaints) that were not part of the audit by Liberty,” Hobbins said in an interview Thursday. “I just think the average consumer in Maine and the ratepayers of CMP want answers.”

More than 100,000 customers received inaccurate bills after the company rolled out its new SmartCare billing system in October 2017, according to CMP data. But advocates for overbilled ratepayers suggest the number may be much higher and are pursuing a class-action lawsuit against the company.

A monthslong investigation by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram published Sunday revealed that CMP managers rushed to implement the new billing system and skipped critical tests prior to the launch.

The investigation showed that as customer complaints poured in – with some receiving monthly invoices for $1,500 – CMP  blamed customers, the weather and energy prices, all the while downplaying the problems to the PUC and the public.

On Thursday, PUC staff wrote in a procedural order accepting Hobbins’ proposal that “the commission staff has a strong interest both in resolving this case as soon as possible, and in allowing the (Office of the Public Advocate) to conduct its testing/analysis to its satisfaction.”

CMP officials agreed Thursday to provide Hobbins’ office with the requested information and welcomed the additional analysis “in hopes that consistent answers will help the public regain trust in the company and its system.”

“CMP has committed to providing the specific customer information sought by the (Office of the Public Advocate) as part of the ongoing investigation into the metering and billing system,” CMP spokeswoman Catharine Hartnett said. “We trust it will confirm the findings of the Liberty Group’s thorough and lengthy review, which concluded last December that CMP’s metering and billing system is working as intended, and customer bills are accurate.”

Liberty Consulting Group conducted an “end-to-end” audit that analyzed CMP data at each stage, including at the individual household meter for 650,000 customers.

Overall, the audit found that the digital “smart meters” installed on the vast majority of CMP accounts were producing accurate bills. But Liberty also determined that the company had skipped 13 weeks of testing and failed to fix roughly 100 system defects in the scramble to implement the new system. CMP disputes those latter charges.

The additional analysis planned by Hobbins’ office will not be as comprehensive, and will focus, instead, only on accounts that submitted complaints since May 2018.

The testing, which could take up to eight weeks, would look for anomalies between temporarily stored information from the meters and the amount of usage recorded on the bill. Examiners would review three consecutive bills for each account, looking for discrepancies between the meter readings and the bills. If a problem is discovered, further information, such as hourly usage readings, would be used to try to identify the source of the anomaly.

Hobbins was attending a conference in Massachusetts on Thursday and could not join the PUC conference call, although another member of his office did participate.

He said his office’s review will be “a very important part” of the larger PUC investigation, and he commended CMP officials for their willingness to share any requested information. Hobbins also stressed that all personal customer information will remain private and will not be publicly disclosed.

“All of the information is under a protective order,” Hobbins said. “This is not a witch hunt. This is a very discreet review respecting the privacy of customers of Central Maine Power Company.”