After five years of frustrations with Central Maine Power’s “deteriorating reliability” in the area, a group of Jackman residents have filed a complaint with the Public Utilities Commission, urging the state agency to investigate the utility.

The complaint filed by residents of the remote northern Maine town comes following a number of criticisms and investigations into the utility, which has come under fire for its response to outages caused by the October 2017 wind storm as well as for huge spikes in electric bills.

The utilities commission had ordered CMP to respond to the complaint by Thursday, after which it will decide whether to pursue or dismiss the case, according to the PUC’s administrative director Harry Lanphear. A CMP official indicated a response had been filed Thursday night but it was not posted on the PUC website as of press time.

The 10-person complaint was filed on December 13 by Jackman resident Darien Sawyer, who is also a local reverend, and nine other signees. It claims that CMP is practicing unjust discrimination, giving “undue or unreasonable preference, advantage, prejudice or disadvantage” to ratepayers in the town, who pay the statewide rate while receiving poorer service. It also states a concern that CMP is violating a state law that requires public utilities to “furnish safe, reasonable and adequate facilities and service.”

The residents say that power outages in Jackman have increased 275 percent in frequency and 440 percent in duration between 2013 and 2017, although the source of that data is not cited in the complaint.

“CMP outages are putting elderly citizens, shut-ins and families of young children at risk during cold weather in our area,” the complaint states. “Further, these extended outages increase risks of frozen pipes and extensive damage to homes and businesses. Some citizens without cell phone coverage cannot access 911 when there is a loss of power. Almost half the area ratepayers have had to purchase generators, causing financial stress, and lack of reliable power has a negative effect on future businesses, economic and community growth.”

Lifelong Jackman resident Rene Guay said he cannot remember a time when CMP’s service has been worse than it is today.

“I’m 60 years old, I’ve lived here my entire life and I’m very confident in saying that I’ve lost more power in the last four years — and for longer periods of time — than I have in the previous 54 to 55 years of my life combined,” he said in a phone interview Thursday. “It (can be) summertime — it doesn’t matter. If there’s wind, there’s a guaranteed outage.”

Catherine Hartnett, manager of corporate communications for CMP, says Jackman’s remote location makes providing reliable service more challenging.

“CMP always strives to provide safe and reliable service to all customers,” Hartnett said in an email to the Morning Sentinel. “Given the remote nature of Jackman, this can be more challenging in bad weather and storm conditions, particularly given the impacts of uprooted trees and falling branches on our poles and wires.”

Hartnett also questioned the data provided in the complaint, saying the utility would be “clarifying and correcting the outage information provided by those bringing the complaint as they do not correspond with our own service and personnel records.”

Although Guay was not one of the complaint’s 10 signers, he left a public comment on the case, accessible via the Public Utilities Commission website. Guay runs an online natural forest product business called Spirit of the Woods. When power outages cause the internet to be down for extended — and unpredictable — chunks of time, he says he loses an increasing amount of revenue.

“I have a 100 percent internet business, and when the power goes down I can’t even communicate with my customers — and that’s an all day, every day thing,” Guay said. “A very high percentage of them order or want custom orders. When I can’t communicate with them — and let alone for two to three days time — they go some place else, and that’s happened a lot.”

Central Maine Power Co. utility pole and lines off of U.S. Route 201 in Jackman. Residents in the town have complained that the utility’s service has been increasingly unreliable over the past five years.

Guay added that electrical surges leading up to outages have crashed his computers in the past and that he has paid over $500 to repair water and sewer pipes that froze during blackouts. While he has a hot air system to heat his home when the power is out, he cannot currently afford a generator large enough to sustain his shop.

“I just haven’t had the capital to be able to pull that off at this point,” he said. “I think pretty much every business in Jackman — not that there are a lot — has generators. (But) they’re definitely not cheap.”

POWER CONCERNS

The emerging need to purchase backup energy sources has placed an outsized strain on Jackman residents’ savings. Some, like David Bowman, a pastor at Jackman’s First Baptist Church, have even said that CMP’s unreliability threatens their health.

“I am disabled and rely on constant power for medical purposes,” he wrote in a public comment on the case. “Power outages in the area can be fatal to many here especially in the winter. If (there) is a way to draw from other sources when the main line is down, I am all for it.”

Bowman could not be reached for further comment on Thursday.

The complaint notes that “backup power could be available in Canada (8 miles away) and Rockwood (20 miles) but CMP refuses to provide our communities backup.”

In another public comment attached to the utilities commission case, Kurt Sawyer noted that CMP’s poor service makes him fearful for his young infant’s well being.

“My wife and I live in an apartment attached to our maple sugar house and we have a 4-month-old to keep warm and healthy,” he wrote. “Frozen pipes are not fun and we are sick and tired of CMPs lack of infrastructure upgrades and tree cutting. They do not maintain the power lines as well as they should.”

In the Dec. 13 complaint, Jackman residents expressed a desire for CMP to present a long-term plan to address its deficiencies in serving the area and provide a viable path forward. The signers attributed CMP’s insufficient service to “a diminished workforce, lack of parts inventory in trucks, old brittle and outdated wires and equipment, moving our power source to Wyman (which effectively doubled the distance and increasing the risk of storm damage interruptions by 200%) and a lack of proactive planning,” according to the complaint.

Guay recalled much better service in years past.

“(Jackman) used to have a crew of six, seven or eight (CMP employees) … for years, and CMP even had an office here,” he recalled. “Very seldom would we lose power, and when we did, it was just for a few minutes.”

Hartnett, however said that isn’t exactly true.

A Central Maine Power Co. line runs across U.S. Route 201 in Jackman. Residents filed a complaint against the utility with the state’s Public Utilities Commission in December over increasingly longer and more frequent power outages across town.

“As directed by the MPUC we have maintained a consistent level of staffing for Jackman supported by crews from Skowhegan and contracted crews,” she said. “We feel the staffing is adequate and responsive to outages. Our equipment and vehicles are also up-to-date. We constructed a new service facility in Jackman in 2000 and maintain service equipment and our fleet.”

In September 1995, a separate PUC investigation ordered CMP to “present a long term plan and continue adequate personnel until such long term plan could be effected,” the Dec. 13 complaint reads.

“Obviously, their long term plan was a complete failure and a new one is needed,” it states in a following sentence.

In her email, Hartnett said CMP has proposed “new solutions to offer alternate power sources for Jackman” as part of a proposed infrastructure resiliency project.

Meanwhile on Thursday, the utility defended an imminent increase in energy supply rates in a news release, in anticipation of backlash.

“‘We are reminding customers that the energy supply rates for residential customers who choose Standard Offer supply will rise 13.7% beginning in January,'” said CMP’s president and CEO Doug Herling in the news release. “‘This is not a CMP increase — this is the increase in the cost of energy supplied largely by natural gas-fired generation companies. However, CMP collects this fee in bills and remits it to the Standard Offer suppliers so customers often assume we have just raised their rates — which is not the case.'”

The Maine Public Utilities Commission sets Standard Offer rates and announced the increase earlier this month.

LOST FAITH

Lanphear said that the commission will address the Jackman case as early as January 2019.

“Our process is: we get the complaint, we give the utility the opportunity to respond to that complaint, and then one of two things happen,” he explained. “If we happen to be satisfied with the utility’s response, we could dismiss the complaint. If we’re not satisfied, we could open up a formal investigation and schedule hearings, et cetera.”

“(The timeline) really depends on (CMP’s) response,” Lanphear added. “If their response is thorough and we can make a decision, then it could be fairly quickly that we decide what to do. If their response doesn’t fully answer all the issues, we could ask for additional information. That has happened in the past, which could extend things. Usually, we turn things around fairly quickly. … If we get all the data and we don’t have to follow up and ask for additional data, I would think we would be able to deliberate that in January sometime.”

Some Jackman residents have lost so much faith in CMP that they doubt bringing the issue to the commission’s attention will help.

“I don’t believe for a second anything will come out of it,” said Guay. “I don’t see anything changing, and I think it’s gonna get a lot worse before it gets better.”

The town’s issues with CMP’s electric service comes on the heels of a controversial debate over the company’s proposal for a 145-mile long transmission line that would cut through western Maine to bring hydropower from Quebec to Massachusetts. While the line would not pass directly through Jackman, it would transverse adjacent communities.

“That’s like a major slap in the face to us,” said Guay. “If they had the money to buy all this land and dump billions of dollars into trying to get this corridor going, but they cant take care of what they have already — it is very frustrating for us. It’s putting salt on the wound. Let’s put it that way.”

The proposed corridor, called New England Clean Energy Connect, has a project budget of $950 million and would be funded by Massachusetts electricity customers. CMP owns the land that the line would cut through, though it is unclear when the company acquired that land and for how much. In November, Jackman residents voted 78-11 against the project in a special town meeting. Several towns, including Alna, Caratunk, New Sharon, West Forks Plantation and The Forks Plantation have expressed disapproval for the corridor.

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

@megrobbins


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