Just days after regulators blamed high electricity use in cold weather for the high bills thousands of Central Maine Power customers received, Maine’s public advocate late Friday released its own study that still questions the reliability of the utility’s metering and billing system.
The highly anticipated report cited ongoing issues, including incorrect state taxes on bills and errors in usage. It also found some errors that it believes can affect CMP customers who have not complained of high bills but who have exchanged their meter or received delayed bills.
“CMP has denied to this day that there is a problem with the billing system,” Public Advocate Barry Hobbins said. “But there are the same problems in the summertime as in the winter. The system isn’t working properly.”
The billing and metering system, known as SmartCare, was installed in October 2017, the same time a strong wind storm knocked out power to thousands of customers for up to a week.
In its analysis filed Tuesday, the Maine Public Utilities Commission’s staff said that there were no systemic problems with the CMP system. It cited comparisons over two winters with Emera Maine’s bills and found the rise in rates in cold weather comparable among customers of both utilities. It also cited conclusions from an independent audit filed in December 2018 by Liberty Consulting Group of Pennsylvania that found no systemic problems.
CMP spokeswoman Catharine Hartnett said the company will take time to thoroughly review the public advocate’s audit results and respond by Oct. 16, as required by the commission.
She said the Liberty audit and commission staff analysis found no systemic issues with SmartCare after customer data for every account, meter and four million bills were analyzed.
“Should the [public advocate] audit reveal an undiscovered malfunction with the SmartCare system, CMP will, of course, correct it,” she said.
Hobbins said that cold weather is too simple an explanation and does not take into account the ongoing billing issues. The public advocate’s office hired Portland consultant BerryDunn to analyze 1,370 customer accounts and more than 5,400 invoices with high bills from May 1, 2018, until Aug. 18, 2019.
“Given the parameters of our analysis, we cannot conclusively determine the extent or pervasiveness of these problems; however we believe the nature and extent of the issues we identified call into question the overall integrity of the system and its ability to provide accurate, timely and reliable invoices to CMP customers,” wrote Julie Keim, principal at BerryDunn.
The public advocate’s report said that until measures are taken to identify the root cause of the problems and to create a system to resolve them, customers will continue to complain.
Deep analysis shows problems
The public advocate’s filing with the commission is in three parts: an analysis of customer accounts, a procedural analysis and testimony on how CMP readied the system and testimony by a CMP customer who also is an inspector and energy auditor.
The report cited numerous instances in which customers received invoices with errors related to the current or prior meter readings, meter read dates, calculated total kilowatts per hour, how delivery charges were shown and the number of days usage occurred. Some instances involved long periods of unbilled usage, which resulted in invoices that were confusing.
The report said it is unlikely that a typical customer would understand the invoices as presented on the bill and could assume they were inaccurate or that they were being overbilled.
E. David Semon, owner of Gulf of Maine Custom Homes in Freeport, who is an energy auditor, filed testimony along with the public advocate’s report saying he saw usage spikes at 3 a.m. that were not possible, and that CMP was not able to isolate the problem.
“There are serious and fundamental issues with CMP’s billing and/or metering systems, or the interface between these systems, which appears to intermittently be measuring and billing for service that was not actually delivered. These issues have not been resolved,” Semon wrote.
The report also found that a CMP customer service representative can manually change the meter reading in the SmartCare system to indicate that a meter had been read when it had not. And the entry is not identified as a manual change or estimated reading on the invoice.
BerryDunn’s analysis also cited what it called a SmartCare system defect in which customers may have been overcharged Maine sales tax.
If a customer’s usage was greater than 750 kWh and was billed in a different period than when the usage occurred, the customer was billed an incorrect amount of Maine sales tax, it said.
That happened because the 750 kWh per month residential exemption is not accounted for because of the delayed billing. It typically happened in the first and second billing period for a new meter, the report said.
Pinpointing the root cause for ongoing billing problems remains elusive, despite the audits scrutinizing CMP’s bills and meters.
“It is impossible to say with accuracy what appliances, lights, electronics, etc., a customer was using at any given time in the distant past, and how much electricity each device used at the time,” the commission’s staff wrote in its analysis.
The public advocate’s findings said that after eight weeks of intense review and analysis, it could not isolate a single defect, set of defects or root cause for the numerous complaints relating to high usage.
The public advocate recommended that CMP retest and validate the SmartCare system under the supervision of an outside party in an effort to regain public trust.
And it made clear that the costs to repair defects and retest the system should be borne by CMP’s shareholders, not ratepayers.
The report also criticized CMP’s practices in implementing SmartCare, saying the company “deviated significantly” from best practices for a project of that size and complexity. The Liberty audit drew similar conclusions.
“They rushed to get it done,” Hobbins said.
He said the proper testing, defect management and other procedures were not in place to assure the billing and metering system
“It is not clear if CMP leadership and staff possess the knowledge of best practices and have experience to apply them,” Laura Arnold, senior manager at BerryDunn, wrote in her recommendations. “It is possible that some or all of these best practices were purposely ignored.”
Arnold recommended that CMP develop an action plan to regain the public’s confidence. The plan should be monitored by an independent party that periodically reports to the commission.
It also said that when a defect is identified that affects a customer invoice, CMP should analyze all customer accounts that may have been affected. CMP also should notify customers about the problem and how it might affect their bill. The notification should be separate from their invoice.
“Our report suggests pathways to take to assure the system is running properly and to restore public confidence,” Hobbins said. “I believe the Maine Public Utilities Commission has an obligation to exhaust all remedies in the ongoing billing and metering case before they consider giving one penny more in higher rates to CMP.”
CMP has requested a rate increase that is being considered in a separate commission case. That case will be decided after the billing and metering case is complete. Commission staff earlier suggested cutting CMP’s profits for its poor customer performance.
The commission is scheduled to make its final decision on the metering and billing case Dec. 20. The reports by the commission’s staff and the public advocate will be taken into account in the final decision.