September 24, 2018
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Customer complaints about skyrocketing electric bills prompt state review

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
In this Oct. 14, 2010 file photo, a Central Maine Power smart meter displays electricity usage at a business in Freeport.
By Lori Valigra

The Maine Public Utilities Commission will meet Tuesday to discuss what, if any, action it needs to take following at least 100 customer complaints since January that Central Maine Power bills increased unexpectedly, in some cases by hundreds of dollars.

Alarmed energy customers around Maine have posted on social media message boards that their electric bills have shot up in recent months with no warning.

“I’ve never ever had a bill over $150, and that was [with] electric heat in the dead of winter,” Jacob Johnson of Tenants Harbor wrote in a Feb. 15 post on the Midcoast Message Board Facebook page. He said his CMP bill had more than doubled to $367 a month.

The PUC receives complaints every winter about higher bills, but this year colder weather, an October change in CMP’s billing system and increases in energy supplier prices may have contributed to the high bills, said Harry Lanphear, administrative director of the PUC.

“The commissioners will decide whether or not to open an investigation,” he said of the Tuesday meeting. “We’ve been looking closely at the [bill] issue for some time. The staff will provide information to the commissioners that will be focused on the complaints we received.”

The meeting is scheduled for 10 a.m., Feb. 27, at the PUC offices at 101 Second St. in Hallowell and will be streamed live on the PUC website.

A CMP spokesperson said the utility is aware of the complaints and is acting to answer questions and rectify instances where customers might have been charged too much.

“We understand customers’ concerns, and we know some feel that factors beyond cold weather and supply price increases may be affecting their bills,” said Gail Rice, a CMP spokesperson. “While we have not found any systemic problems with our new customer care system [billing and customer service], we continue to look for any faults that could affect bill accuracy.”

If there are any billing errors, she said, CMP will refund any difference and provide a credit of up to $10 under its customer service guarantee.

She was not sure if someone from CMP would attend the Tuesday meeting as an observer, but said CMP will answer the PUC’s questions about metering, billing and customer communications. She said she didn’t have the number of customers who complained to CMP directly.

PUC gets 100 complaints so far this year

The PUC received 80 complaints in January and 20 so far in February for a variety of billing issues, including customers who said their bills had doubled or tripled and they had no luck getting an explanation from CMP. The commissioners will investigate CMP’s metering, billing and customer communications.

Lanphear said the PUC also received complaints about high Emera bills, but the number of complaints was low. Emera will not be discussed in Tuesday’s meeting, he said. There were 10 complaints in January and seven in February.

Electricity usage goes up when it is cold, Lanphear said, and the period from Dec. 16 to Jan. 15 was 25 percent colder in some parts of Maine than at that time last year.

Additionally, the standard offer price for electricity rose as of Jan. 1. It is a fixed rate approved by state utilities’ regulators each year as a default electricity supply option. The standard offer price for CMP customers is now 7.92 cents per kilowatt hour, up 18 percent over last year. That raises the total electric bill for residences by an average of 6 percent or $6.75 per month.

The standard offer for Emera Maine is 7.22 cents per kilowatt hour, up 14 percent over last year and raising the total electricity bill 5 percent or $4.52 per month.

Lanphear said some of the competitive electricity suppliers raised rates more than 30 percent.

Complaints continue to the PUC, public advocate and on social media.

In a Feb. 14 comment submitted to the PUC’s case investigating the power companies’ response to recent widespread storm outages, Robert O’Connor of South China said he reviewed his energy use back fo the October windstorm and said there were discrepancies in his electricity use between CMP’s Energy Manager, which CMP describes as an online tool that works with a smart meter so customers can track energy use online, and the utility’s billing system.

“CMP needs to explain how this error could occur. There should be no discrepancy between the billing system and the Energy Manager. Data is data. It should match exactly,” he wrote.

Rice said there was a data problem with the Energy Manager from Dec. 19-21 that was corrected. She said the company bills based on the billing system, not the Energy Manager.

But she acknowledged that the company is also looking into its billing system after an October update.

“We replaced a 30-year-old billing system that ran on a mainframe computer. It was very hard to support and not flexible for what we need, like dynamic pricing,” she said. “Since the change to a new billing system at the end of October 2017, customers have reported high usage and bills. We’re not quite sure what the problem is, but we are looking at that system.”

In a Feb. 15 comment to the PUC, Vicki Card of Casco said her home electricity bill rose $300 in one month and the bill in the small office where she works rose $500 in a month.

“I have lived in my home for 30 years and been through many ‘cold spells’ and have never experienced such a jump. CMP recently had a system upgrade with billing and I think there should be an independent audit as perhaps the switch from one system to the other caused a glitch with readings and double/triple billing,” she wrote.

The possible role of CMP’s smart meter system in the high bills was questioned at a Feb. 6 public meeting about the October 2017 wind storm outage responses by CMP and Emera Maine.

Eric Stinneford, CMP’s vice president, controller and treasurer, said that at the worst point in the storm, 50 percent of the smart meter system was working.

“We overestimated usage during the outage event, and that got reconciled during the next billing cycle,” Stinneford said.

The PUC’s Lanphear said that in checking some of the complaints, the PUC conducted tests on several smart meters, “and in all cases they worked properly.”

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