The staff for Maine’s utility regulatory agency says high usage, not meter problems or new billing software, was responsible for thousands of Central Maine Power customers receiving high electricity bills in the winter of 2017-18.

The conclusion by analysts with the Maine Public Utilities Commission affirms an earlier analysis done by Liberty Consulting Group, an independent auditor hired by the agency, that found exceptionally high bills received by CMP customers that winter were caused by increased power use because of frigid weather, as well as a modest rate increase. CMP acknowledged that more than 97,000 customers received bills that were at least 50 percent higher than a similar period a year earlier.

This conclusion, formally called a bench analysis, isn’t the final word in the controversial case, one of two ongoing investigations at the PUC into complaints about CMP’s billing and metering system. But it’s a key step in the process of gathering information for the three commissioners, who are expected to rule Dec. 20. The staff is scheduled to make its final recommendation to the panel on Dec. 9.

It’s also an important finding because it essentially reaffirms CMP’s contention that “the usage is the usage,” meaning that bills accurately reflected the amount of power people consumed. CMP has been steadfast in that position, even under strong questioning by the commission during three days of hearings in August.

The staff’s explanation also doesn’t explain more recent and ongoing complaints by many customers. A sampling of those were reviewed in a new round of meter testing by consultants hired by the Public Advocate’s Office. The results are expected at the end of this week.

Catharine Hartnett, spokeswoman for CMP, said Tuesday evening that the utility was still reviewing the PUC staff report but was pleased that it supports the results of two internal CMP audits and the Liberty Group’s audit, which concluded that CMP’s billing system “accurately collects and tracks customer energy usage from the meter to the bill.”

For Kittery resident Lauren Loomis, however, that doesn’t ring true. After months of dealing with CMP over her high electric bills in 2018, Loomis joined other disgruntled CMP customers in a Facebook group called CMP Ratepayers Unite. She now administers the site.

She said the PUC staff analysis relies on data that CMP provided, including weather information. Loomis doubted that data’s accuracy and was critical of Liberty’s earlier analysis, saying it should have drilled deeper into individual cases of customers with supposed high usage rates. She said her own research has revealed miscommunication between the CMP metering and billing systems.

“They’re going to have to hire a forensic auditor that actually understands the metering systems and the billing system,” Loomis said.

She said she’s encouraged that the public advocate’s auditors are conducting a rigorous investigation, and have sought to collect their own data, instead of relying on CMP to provide information.

Also critical was Sumner Lipman, an attorney representing ratepayers in a pending class-action lawsuit against CMP.

“What they’re saying makes absolutely no sense at all,” Lipman said Tuesday evening. “There are people who got substantial power bills who didn’t even have power on. It’s part of our contention that the consumer isn’t going to get a fair shake in front of the PUC. That’s why we have courts.”

Tina and Nathan Dyar saw their monthly bill for their two-bedroom trailer in Hiram double from $50 to $100 after the storm, and then top out at $300 a month before they moved. A CMP representative blamed the problem on video-playing children – until the Dyars explained that their baby was just 1 year old.

“The extremely cold weather was not the reason for CMP customers to have bills that were and still are crazy high,” the Dyars said in an email Tuesday night. “The PUC is obviously siding with CMP and that’s not right. CMP overcharged people and they should get money credited to them – period.

“This lawsuit is crazy as it shouldn’t even have to happen, but because CMP can’t admit that they did wrong it has to happen.”

A SERIES OF INVESTIGATIONS

CMP has been under intense scrutiny since late October 2017, when it went live with its new customer billing system, called SmartCare. It coincided with a massive wind storm that caused the largest power outage in CMP’s history, affecting three out of every four CMP customers. Two months later, standard-offer prices for residential electricity supply in CMP’s territory increased by 18 percent.

Those events were followed by months of complaints about high bills, eventually leading the PUC to open a probe in March 2018. Customers profiled in a Maine Sunday Telegram investigation this summer spoke of enduring hardships caused by bills they couldn’t pay, including a Waterville family that was showering at a local Boys & Girls Club to save on electricity and a Skowhegan ice cream shop owner who saw his bills spike by 50 percent even though there were no changes in his appliances or operations.

The investigation also revealed that CMP had bungled the rollout of its new billing software and misled the public.

By late 2018, Liberty concluded that there was no systemic problem with CMP’s metering and billing systems at the root of the high bills experienced by customers during the winter of 2017-18 and attributed the spike to the weather and rate increase.

That led to questions about why customers in the service territories of other Maine utilities did not register similar complaints, although a Maine Sunday Telegram story in March 2018 found that cold weather had triggered high-bill complaints in 22 states.

To look deeper, the PUC requested data to see whether Emera Maine’s residential customers experienced usage increases that mirror CMP customers’ usage during the winter of 2017-18.

To do so, the staff reviewed residential customers whose usage increased 50 percent or more during that period in the Bangor Hydro District of Emera Maine and compared them to CMP’s figures. It found the two virtually identical, around 13.7 percent. Specifically, 14,349 of Emera Maine’s 103,858 customers had higher usage, compared to 75,439 of CMP’s 552,236 customers.

“This leads the staff to conclude, consistent with Liberty’s findings, that the fact that customer bills reflected relatively high energy usage (and thus high billed amounts) for that period was a result of weather, and not a systemic error in CMP’s metering or billing system,” the report states.

Having said that, the staff acknowledged that a significant number of customers have individual concerns about high use that have not been adequately addressed. Those complaints were voiced at public hearings in July, and to the PUC’s consumer division. To address unexplained billing issues, the staff recommenced setting up an independent review process.

It noted that as of Aug. 19, 3,628 customers with high-use concerns had been referred to a specialized team at CMP. Of those, CMP has been able to reach 2,455 customers and has resolved 1,208 to the customer’s satisfaction. That leaves 1,247 customers for whom CMP has not been able to resolve complaints.

The staff suggested that, under an independent review process, customers would have the option of being referred to an independent entity, such as Efficiency Maine, to conduct an audit of each customer’s electricity usage, an option endorsed by CMP.

“We are also pleased that the MPUC Staff supports the proposal to have an entity such as The Efficiency Maine Trust support an independent review process for customers who have experienced increased usage,” said CMP’s Hartnett in her statement.

This approach reflects elements of a proposal by CMP to set up a $6 million compensation fund, administered by the PUC, to help people with unresolved billing complaints. That plan is expected to be considered by the PUC after the billing probe and a parallel rate case are finished.

Staff Writer Matt Byrne contributed to this report.


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