The yearlong inquiry into customer complaints linked to Central Maine Power’s SmartCare billing system comes to a head over the next four weeks, with the Maine Public Utilities Commission set to decide which of two conflicting sets of facts better reflects reality.

On one side, there are thousands of customer complaints about inaccurate electric bills and poor customer service following the launch of CMP’s new billing system, and a public watchdog agency report that supports them. On the other side are separate assessments that say the utility’s billing software is fine and the bills reflect actual electricity usage.

The two positions will collide on Thursday, when the Hearing Examiners – the staff attorneys running the case – are expected to issue a report that serves as a recommendation to the three commissioners. Parties to the case can then file their written reactions to the Hearing Examiners’ report.

A separate but parallel case involving a CMP rate hike is also supposed to be considered in an examiners’ report Thursday.

As of now, the commissioners have scheduled decisions for both the billing and rate cases on Jan. 30. If the commission rules against CMP in the billing case, Maine’s largest utility could face fines and reduced profits.

Meanwhile, customers who feel they’ve been billed inaccurately are looking for justice, or at least vindication. They continue to contact the PUC with comments that reveal ongoing levels of confusion and frustration.

Jason Hall of Manchester, for instance, filed a formal complaint in early December to say his bills have doubled or tripled since the new billing system went live.

Hall wrote: “We have no heavy appliances; no heat pumps, freezers, pools, and only one small AC window unit that we use in the summer very seldom due to the high power bills. CMP says that I used 800kw in my 1,100 square foot house last month. I received a letter from CMP saying the investigation was completed and that I needed to pay $2926.20 to keep from being disconnected by Nov. 12.”

But these situations are rarely clearcut, and the back-and-forth over many months is exhaustive. In mid-December, CMP filed 20 so-called case studies, the detailed chronologies of 20 varied complaints.

One customer simply couldn’t accept that his house could use so much electricity when he wasn’t home. Another got bills for 17 months that showed no usage and then was billed for more than $22,000. What followed was a two-year dispute over testing and switching out meters, a locked gate and a dog that prevented meter reading, and other charges by the customer. The PUC closed the case in October and told CMP to bill for 12 months, rather than 16. In mid-December the customer had an outstanding balance of $5,875, according to the case study.

CMP also is expressing fatigue as it tries to rebuild trust after a billing controversy that has dragged on for more than two years. For Maine’s largest utility, an unfavorable outcome could lead to financial penalties and further damage to its reputation.

CUSTOMERS HARMED?

The first view of what happened is summarized by closing briefs filed in late November by the Maine Office of Public Advocate, which represents utility customers in the case.

The agency asserts that CMP’s billing and metering system was flawed and continues to be flawed, and that ongoing problems undermine customer confidence that bills are accurate. Among other things, the office recommends that regulators impose a $6.5 million financial penalty against CMP, order third-party testing of SmartCare and adopt a proposed independent review process for customers with high-usage complaints.

Barry Hobbins, the public advocate, says the findings of a consultant hired by his office confirm that the billing system still had bugs as of last August that produced inaccurate bills.

“Did we find a silver bullet?” Hobbins said. “No, but we found enough issues to support our recommendations. Customers have been harmed by SmartCare’s shortcomings.”

CMP’s position, also contained in closing briefs, paints a completely different picture.

It acknowledges some bugs in the rollout of the new system, but not in the performance. It contends that SmartCare’s metering and billing systems have worked properly since going live in late 2017, and that customers have been and continue to be billed accurately for the power they use.

That summary, however, contains an apparent contradiction. At the same time, the company acknowledges that SmartCare did have various bill errors and presentation issues, which it says have been corrected. But with limited exceptions, CMP says, none of this led to overcharging customers.

The distinction, according to Catharine Hartnett, CMP’s spokeswoman, is that the billing errors didn’t impact how much a customer needed to pay and weren’t related to how much power the customer used. In sum, she noted, the 107,000 documented bill errors affected relatively few of its 600,000 customers – the largest error involved an incorrect interest rate applied to a late payment.

CMP also rebuts findings by consultants hired by the PUC and the public advocate, as well as an investigation by the Maine Sunday Telegram, that the company failed to adequately test SmartCare before launching it. The company also discounted evidence presented in the case that a technical anomaly in some meters had a significant impact on customer bills.

FUNDAMENTAL QUESTIONS

These conflicting conclusions will challenge the commission to fully answer key questions first raised in March 2018, when the agency initiated a review before moving on to a full investigation at the start of 2019. Those questions include:

• Are CMP’s meters accurately reading customer usage?

• Are CMP’s smart meters accurately communicating with the new billing system?

• Are CMP’s bills accurately reflecting usage?

• Are CMP’s bills accurately calculating the total bill?

The commission and its staff have spent a year seeking these answers. They’ve examined literally millions of data points in nearly 200 separate filings. They’ve traveled around the service area to listen to customers unload at public hearings and had the chance to question utility representatives and experts at technical hearings that dragged on for days.

The details of how the commissioners come down on the billing issues will also have wider implications.

A group of customers who are seeking to sue CMP and its parent company, Avangrid, have been told by a judge to wait for the outcome at the PUC.

And on a separate track, the PUC recently hired a consultant to analyze the costs, benefits and impacts of a legislative proposal to create a public power authority, which would do away with investor-owned CMP and Emera Maine. That report is due in February. How the public power movement is viewed by the full Legislature and Gov. Janet Mills may hinge in part on whether customers feel a sense of closure after the PUC process.

The PUC is under no obligation to save CMP from itself, said Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, the public power bill’s prime sponsor. He co-chairs the legislative committee that handles energy matters that will review the consultant’s report.

Berry said it will be difficult for the PUC to adequately compensate some customers for the stress and anxiety of fighting for months over disputed bills or threats of having their power disconnected.

“My biggest concern,” he said, “is the full extent of damage to individual lives won’t be fully understood, acknowledged or addressed.”

OTHER CHARGES LOOM

CMP has proposed a $6 million compensation fund, among other measures, to help resolve ongoing disputes outside the courts. The PUC has taken no action on this proposal, and lawyers representing clients seeking class-action status in court have dismissed it as a tactic to avoid paying what they estimate to be $140 million in damages.

Meanwhile, a separate group of customers is asking the PUC to formally investigate CMP’s authority to operate in Maine. CMP has asked the PUC to dismiss the motion; the agency has yet to respond.

As the PUC’s decision looms, CMP is trying to emphasize that whatever problems it has had are largely in the past. Hartnett noted the company has hired two dozen more customer service reps, increased training, appointed a new vice president of customer service and set up an employee team to track information technology changes.

She also noted that an analysis done by the PUC staff in September found that high usage, not meter problems or new billing software, was responsible for thousands of customers receiving high electricity bills in the winter of 2017-18.

Hartnett said the conclusion affirms an earlier analysis done by Liberty Consulting Group, an independent auditor hired by the PUC, 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 supply 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.

Most recently, CMP launched a branding and workplace initiative called Power On, an effort to improve customer service and regain trust.

But for some customers, high bills aren’t just a distant memory. Complaints were being logged into last month at the PUC. Each situation is unique and subject to dispute, but they continue to create the sense of lingering problems with CMP’s billing system.

Complicating the matter is that some customers, represented by an online group fighting high bills, CMP Ratepayers Unite, are claiming that they were told by the company or the PUC not to pay for the time being. That would directly contradict the PUC’s public advice to contact CMP and pay at least an undisputed portion of the bill, based on usage.

Some customers have run up staggering debts. A spreadsheet from CMP Ratepayers Unite contains a footnote from a customer who is said to owe nearly $10,000.

“Disputed bill early on when bill doubled; CMP customer service said not to pay until investigation ended. Received disconnection notice for $9,995. Working full time; 8 months pregnant with 4th child – very stressed.”

Merritt Waldron, director of quality control at Rising Tide Brewing Co., stacks a case of MITA on a growing pallet last summer. The company has been embroiled in a billing dispute with Central Maine Power. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

‘WAR OF WORDS’

Businesses also continue to be caught up in the controversy. A Portland beer maker, Rising Tide Brewing Co., is blaming a “systemic billing error” for a security deposit dispute with CMP.

“CMP also did not acknowledge that they have a systemic billing flaw that caused their customer service representatives to insist – even when challenged – that we had late payments,” co-owners Nathan and Heather Sanborn wrote to the PUC on Nov. 27. “As a result, this systemic billing flaw likely still exists and will cause other customers to be told they have late payments when they do not.”

Heather Sanborn is a state senator from Portland, who previously served on the Legislature’s energy committee.

The Rising Tide complaint was among several formal so-called case studies publicly released by the company mid-December.

As the PUC’s decision nears, the parties in the case and their rebuttals have mostly dissolved into a war of words that repeat previous points and dismiss conflicting evidence.

CMP concluded its comments by labeling the public advocate’s recommendations “misguided, unwarranted and potentially unlawful,” adding that they could undermine customer confidence and the PUC’s oversight.

But Hobbins and his office have used their closing arguments to highlight what they say are new billing disputes, 24 months after SmartCare went live. They say that as old software defects are fixed by CMP, new ones surface.

“The game of  ‘whack-a-mole’ continues,” the Public Advocate’s Office wrote.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.