Policymakers and Central Maine Power customers eager for the results of an independent audit into high electric bills will need to be patient: Final results might not be available until the end of 2018.

The protracted timeline stems from the need for the Maine Public Utilities Commission to advertise for and hire a private consultant with the skills to examine several complicated facets of CMP’s meter and billing systems.

The prospect that months will pass without answers could further erode public confidence in institutions that are under fire from residents who aren’t satisfied with their interactions with the state’s largest power company and skeptical of the PUC’s ability to police the utility.

Barry Hobbins, the state’s public advocate, said he can’t go to the grocery store without someone stopping him to express frustration with their electric bill or their inability to resolve the issue with CMP.

“This really is a test for the whole system,” he said. “There’s an activism in the public now. They want accountability.”

Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said he recognizes that PUC investigations take time.

“A thorough, independent and forensic audit is needed to restore customer faith in our utility bills,” said Berry, a co-chair of the legislative committee that handles utility matters.

Harry Lanphear, the PUC’s spokesman, said Monday that he was unable to estimate how long the audit process would take. He said state purchasing rules aimed at assuring a fair process for all bidders bar him from answering that question.

“We understand this is a very important issue for the PUC and for the public,” Lanphear said. “Our goal is to get it done as expeditiously as possible, but it’s a very detailed and complex issue. We want to be thorough.”

BIDDING PROCESS, THEN FORENSIC AUDIT

The PUC has begun a request-for-proposals process to hire at least one consultant with the experience to conduct what’s called a forensic audit – a comprehensive, technical examination of CMP’s meter and billing and systems. As required by law, the work request is being conducted through a public bidding process at the Maine Division of Procurement Services.

Bids are due April 26. Then the PUC expects to score the submittals and negotiate a contract with at least one company. Work is scheduled to begin May 15, and wrap up no later than Dec. 31.

Those dates are considered estimates, according to the solicitation document, and can be adjusted when a final contract is signed. And the PUC could favor a consultant who’s able to speed things up.

“Time is of the essence to complete this work and will be considered in the scoring process,” the document says.

Hundreds of CMP customers are in an uproar over unusually high bills that have been coming in since November. Some people say their bills have more than doubled or tripled and they’re not convinced by explanations that CMP’s changeover to a new billing system, the early winter cold spell and an 18 percent hike in standard-offer electric rates in January combined to cause the spike.

The PUC’s staff is in the midst of a data-request audit with CMP, searching for answers.

Meanwhile, CMP said last week that its own internal audit so far has found no problems with the company’s systems. The company said it had reviewed roughly 25 percent of the 1,580 complaints of excessive bills that it received this winter. No anomalies in the company’s new billing software or its smart meter network have been found so far, CMP President and CEO Doug Herling said in a conference call with reporters.

“We have done our investigation. At this point in time we have not found anything about our system or smart meters that would artificially increase customers’ usage,” he said.

Herling also said the company welcomed the audit, is confident about what it will show and expects that it “will give customers confidence that our systems are working.”

Rep. Berry, a frequent critic of CMP, called last week’s news conference with Herling “a media stunt to deflect blame to customers just before spring disconnects and independent fact-finding begin.”

AUDIT TASKS ASSIGNED TO CONSULTANT

Against that backdrop, there’s great anticipation for the PUC’s independent audit to begin. The solicitation document sheds some light on what the consultant will be asked to do.

The work involves a study of monthly bills received between Dec. 1, 2017, and April 30, 2018, and three main questions about the meter and billing systems.

Are the wifi-enabled smart meters producing accurate measurements of customer usage?

Are they accurately transmitting these customer usage measurements to CMP’s meter data management and billing systems?

Are they producing bills that reflect correct customer usage levels and charges?

Home customers will be the focus of the audit, but the PUC wants the consultant to also examine systems for commercial and industrial customers.

Checking the accuracy of the meters will include physical field tests “for a statistically valid number of customers to determine whether the meters are accurately measuring the customer’s usage.” If a problem is discovered, the PUC says, the consultant should pursue a root cause to learn whether it’s isolated or linked to the overall system.

The audit also will examine CMP’s network that transmits and stores data from the meters, to see if usage data is being accurately sent to the billing system. And it will check the accuracy of “a statistically valid number” of monthly customer bills issued during the study period and look at how usage levels are calculated, presented on the bill and charged.

COMPLAINTS OVER HIGH BILLS CONTINUING

Although problems appeared to have peaked after bitter cold weather in December and January, complaints are continuing. Customers are still displaying their most recent bills on the CMP Ratepayers Unite Facebook group page. A posting Monday from Missy Hyde is typical.

“Something is wrong here! On phone with CMP to see if they can fix this or they’ll be getting more complaints til this is resolved, cuz there’s absolutely no way we use this much in a month go from a $180 bill to a $1,500 dollar bill !?”

A picture of the screen shows a bill for $1,417.11. But it also shows a balance forward of $1,056.01, and no payments received through March 22.

Hobbins, the public advocate, is concerned that similar customers with disputed bills will be disconnected for not paying them. Last week, the PUC ruled on a motion from Hobbins that customers must pay at least some portion of the bills, to avoid being disconnected. CMP will include detailed information in upcoming bills to explain the new policy.

As the PUC awaits responses, Hobbins said he’s trying to convince the agency to get answers first for home customers, before addressing business issues. He also supports an effort in the Legislature for the PUC to conduct random checks of utility billing systems and meters, similar to how gasoline pumps are inspected for accuracy by the Bureau of Weights and Measures.

This proposal is contained in the so-called Riley Amendment, a rewrite of an earlier bill that’s being sponsored by Rep. Tina Riley, D-Jay, a member of the energy committee. It would make utilities – not customers – share the costs of audits that identify problems with billing or other technology failures.

The bill was approved in committee on a 7-5 vote, but on Wednesday was still waiting for an amendment before it could move to the full Legislature.

 

This story was updated at 12:30 p.m. on April 11 to reflect the correct status of the bill that would make utilities share the costs of an audit. The bill was approved in committee by a 7-5 vote, but has not been sent to the full Legislature for action as yet.

 

Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

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