The state’s utilities watchdog will present a report to regulators Friday that says Central Maine Power’s meter and billing systems continue to suffer from multiple defects that are leading to errors on customer bills, contradicting an analysis released Tuesday by the staff of the Public Utilities Commission.

The PUC staff’s analysis found that high electric bills experienced by thousands of customers in the winter of 2017-18 were directly linked to high usage in cold weather, not technical problems with CMP’s new billing system.

But on Wednesday, Public Advocate Barry Hobbins said he was disappointed that the staff didn’t wait for the results of a meter-testing study being completed this week by a consultant for his office, to be filed on Friday at the PUC. That study covers a more-recent time period – from May 2018 to June 2019 – and has arrived at a vastly different conclusion.

“There is stuff that’s still not working,” Hobbins told the Portland Press Herald. “Problems are still there now. There is no cold weather now. And people are still having problems.”

Hobbins said his study, by the BerryDunn consulting firm, will show a continued pattern of billing defects that include errors in dates and power usage. Asked if BerryDunn was able to attribute these defects to a root cause, Hobbins said further study and testing are needed.

“There’s no silver bullet,” he said. “But CMP has been saying, ‘The usage is the usage.’ We’re saying, that’s not correct.”

The contradictory conclusions from different consultants this week add to the confusion and uncertainly surrounding the PUC’s protracted investigations into why customers have been complaining about high or incorrect bills since the fall of 2017, when the new billing system, called SmartCare, went live.

In the big picture, they will inform the process of gathering information for the three PUC commissioners, who are expected to rule on the probe around billing complaints on Dec. 20. The staff is scheduled to make its final recommendation to the panel on Dec. 9.

That point was underscored late Wednesday by Phil Bartlett, the PUC’s chair. After reading Hobbins’ comments, he said he wanted to make it clear that the data analysis released by his staff, and the findings of the public advocate, would both contribute to the comprehensive review being undertaken by the agency.

“The commission has reached no final conclusions and will carefully review all evidence before we make our final decision,” Bartlett told the Press Herald.

Contacted for a reaction, a CMP spokeswoman said the company can’t comment on something it hasn’t seen.

“We will review the (Office of Public Advocate) investigation conclusions when released and respond then,” Catharine Hartnett said.

DIFFERENT RESEARCH, DIFFERENT CONCLUSION

A so-called bench analysis filed Tuesday by the PUC staff affirmed an earlier conclusion reached by Liberty Consulting Group, an independent auditor hired by the agency, that found the exceptionally high bills received by CMP customers that winter stemmed from increased power caused by frigid weather, as well as an 18 percent rate increase. CMP acknowledged that more than 97,000 customers received bills that were at least 50 percent higher than during a similar period a year earlier.

To take a deeper dive, 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.

But the public advocate took another approach, using CMP billing data from the more-recent period and scrutinizing 5,400 invoices from 1,370 customer accounts.

“We have different findings,” Hobbins said. “And they aren’t flattering to the protocols and procedures of Central Maine Power.”

An investigation by the Maine Sunday Telegram, which analyzed hundreds of pages of documents related to CMP’s rollout of the SmartCare system and its response to frustrated customers, concluded that the company mismanaged the rollout of the new billing system and misled the public. It also profiled more than a dozen customers dealing with hardship in the wake of inexplicably high bills.

Hobbins’ report will resonate with customers who continue to report problems and don’t accept the PUC staff’s explanation.

Jason Curtis owns the Island Dairy Treat ice cream shop in Skowhegan. It’s not open in cold weather. He said he has received bills totaling $800 a month over a three-month period, which is twice as high as normal. He said he has been unable to reach CMP.

“Them blaming the weather outrages me!” Curtis said via email.

Complaints also continue to be filed at the PUC.

David Semon, an energy auditor and building contractor in Freeport, said he saw multiple usage spikes at 3 a.m. that contributed to a March bill that was 68 percent higher than the previous year. Testing his meter and reviewing usage with a CMP service rep couldn’t find a problem. He also saw usage for a day in April at 0.78 kilowatt hours for 24 hours straight, then zero use one evening in May.

“These instances are clearly not possible,” he told the PUC, “and yet these are the usage numbers I am being billed for. Something needs to be done to fix this system; my confidence in it is nonexistent as everyone’s should be.”

 

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