Central Maine Power Co. ranks last in a nationwide survey of business customers’ opinions of their utility companies, behind even a California utility accused of being responsible for wildfires that killed 85 people last year.

CMP, which delivers electricity to homes and businesses in central and southern Maine, was ranked last on J.D. Power’s survey of the business customers of 87 electric utilities around the country, scoring 639 points on a 1,000-point scale. The top ranked utility was Entergy Texas, with a score of 831. The survey was based on 21,000 online interviews conducted from February to October with business customers who pay at least $200 a month on electricity.

After CMP, the lowest-rated utility in the country was Pacific Gas and Electric, with 724 points. It’s alleged that faulty PG&E lines were responsible for touching off last year’s Camp Fire, which burned much of the town of Paradise, California, and was responsible for dozens of deaths. The utility, which filed for bankruptcy in January, has had to periodically cut off power to large segments of its customer base to prevent a recurrence of fires this fall.

The J.D. Power survey comes amid two years of troubles for CMP following the rollout of a new billing system that sparked thousands of customer complaints and f0ur separate investigations. The Augusta-based utility also is embroiled in controversy surrounding its proposal to build a $1 billion transmission line through western Maine to deliver hydroelectricity from Quebec to Massachusetts.

CMP issued a statement Thursday afternoon that didn’t respond directly to the J.D. Power rankings. The company said it’s “committed to restoring the confidence of our customers and we are investing time and resources to ensure all departments are working together to achieve renewed customer satisfaction.”

The statement said the company has invested in trimming trees to reduce outages, expanded its customer service and operations teams, stepped up employee training and invested in technology to give customers more self-service options.

J.D. Power said the rankings are based on customer assessments of power quality and reliability; corporate citizenship; price; billing and payment; communications; and customer service.

CMP has cited J.D. Power surveys before, with an executive telling attendees at a utility technology conference last fall that the company had a top rating for customer service from the marketing company, when in fact it ranked 12th out of 17 in New England among utilities in its size category. It did rate No. 1 in customer satisfaction in a J.D. Power survey as recently as 2013 and held the top spot twice before among its regional peers.

J.D. Power declined to say how many Maine business customers were interviewed for the survey but said the number met the company’s threshold for statistical significance.

CMP’s recent troubles began in October 2017 when a severe windstorm knocked out power to more than 400,000 homes at the same time the company was launching its new billing and metering system. In the ensuing months, more than 100,000 faulty bills were sent out, triggering thousands of customer complaints and four investigations.

A June investigation by the Portland Press Herald found that the company had mismanaged the rollout of the new system and misled the public. Since the rollout, a pending class-action suit has been filed by angry customers, and state regulators are considering whether to penalize the utility for poor customer service among other concerns. A decision by the Maine Public Utilities Commission is expected by the end of the year. Additionally, the PUC is considering a CMP rate increase.

CMP has acknowledged its customer service shortfalls and in recent months hired more customer service representatives and a new chief for that division.

‘POOR BY COMPARISON’

Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said the survey is important because it reflects the attitude of business customers toward CMP. Business owners and managers are often reluctant to speak out because they need to maintain a good relationship with the utility, Berry said.

Berry is a frequent critic of CMP and has a bill before the Legislature that would start a process to convert CMP to a consumer-owned utility. The bill is likely to be voted on in February, he said.

CMP, Berry said, is “very poor by comparison” to consumer-owned utilities in customer perceptions. He said the utility and others in New England have focused on building costly new transmission lines, which are paid for by consumers.

“We’re all paying through the nose for it,” he said, and electric rates in New England “are on stilts compared with other parts of the country.”

Berry said CMP also lags in service, and he has been critical of the company’s response to storms that have knocked out power to tens of thousands of customers, many for days, including two major storms this fall.

Another critic of CMP said the rankings should be a message to the company to avoid taking on a large project and focus on better operations in Maine.

Sandra Howard said the rankings also show “a great sense of distrust and dissatisfaction with CMP” among both business and residential customers.

Howard is a member of “Say NO to NECEC,” which opposes a plan to build an energy corridor through the state to deliver hydropower from Quebec to electric customers in Massachusetts. The 145-mile corridor has received approval from some state and federal regulators but is still awaiting final approval to proceed and opponents are continuing to try to stop the $1 billion project.

The J.D. Power rankings, she said, “is just another example of the worry people have about (CMP’s) ability to take on more responsibility.” She said the company is unable to keep its current customers satisfied on billing, maintenance and power restoration efforts.

“Apologies and excuses are one thing, but (CMP customers) need to see a change in the service; they need to see improvement,” Howard said.

Both Howard and Berry contend that the handful of consumer-owned utilities in Maine were better able to restore power after major storms than CMP and Emera Maine, the utility that serves northern Maine. A J.D. Power spokesman said Emera Maine was not included in the survey because its business customer base is too small.

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