By: Peter McGuire |
Central Maine Power Co. says an internal audit triggered by more than 1,500 customers’ complaints has so far found no problems with the company’s systems that would explain the unusually high electricity bills reported by customers.
The company says it has reviewed about 25 percent of the 1,580 complaints of excessive bills it received this winter.
Auditors have so far found no anomalies in the company’s new billing software or its smart meter network to explain bills that for some customers were two to three times what they had been during the same period in the previous year, CMP President and CEO Doug Herling said in a conference call with reporters Friday.
“We have done our investigation, at this point in time we have not found anything about our system or smart meters that would artificially increase customers’ usage,” he said.
Barry Hobbins, Maine’s public advocate for utility ratepayers, said he was glad CMP was providing an update of its audit, but chided the company for trying to shift blame for high bills back to customers by attributing it to the weather and customers’ usage.
“I am disappointed with the strategy of putting the burden back on the customer,” he said. “It is early in the process, there hasn’t been a forensic accounting as ordered by the Public Utilities Commission or an audit of the metering.
“I think it is important that the PUC provides that information through their investigation, which I think is warranted. That needs to be looked at before we declare that everything is fine.”
SEVERE COLD SNAP
The Maine Public Utilities Commission received hundreds of complaints from CMP customers who reported dramatic spikes in their electric bills during a severe cold snap that engulfed the state following Christmas and extended into January. An initial PUC inquiry into the bills was inconclusive and regulators are hiring a consultant to perform a more intensive audit.
“We stand ready to assist the PUC to do a full, completely comprehensive review of our systems,” Herling said. “We welcome this audit, it is an independent audit, we are confident with what it will show, and that it will give customers confidence that our systems are working.”
Herling said the company is doing its own audit as fast as possible and will report any new findings.
“If anything were to be found, we would make that right to the customer and make sure any charges were appropriate,” he said.
CMP has tested 1,600 meters at the request of customers since January, four times the number it tested all last year, Herling said Friday. Only one meter was found to be working improperly, and it was an older mechanical model, not a new smart meter.
Central Maine Power has been reaching out to customers to explain and resolve high bills and has brought in extra staff to call customers after business hours and on weekends.
Of the customers CMP has contacted to discuss the complaints, about 250 said they were satisfied and did not want to pursue their cases with the PUC, said Shoba Lemoine, director of corporate communications for Avangrid, CMP’s parent company.
The Public Utilities Commission could not confirm that any CMP customers have withdrawn complaints.
“The commission has not been provided with the documentation from CMP to know how many complaints may have been resolved,” spokesman Harry Lanphear said in an email. “The commission is continuing with its investigation and independent audit.”
Democratic lawmakers on the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee voted along party lines Friday to recommend to the full Legislature a bill allowing the utilities commission to charge the cost of an independent investigation to a utility company if it uncovers wrongdoing, said Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, one of the committee’s chairmen.
FLAW IN THE LAW
Under current law, the cost of hiring an outside investigator falls to its customers, even if “unimaginable acts of irresponsibility” are discovered Berry said.
“It astonishes me that the flaw has not been changed already,” he said.
“I find that completely unacceptable, as do other Democrats on the committee.” The committee will try to get Republican votes on the bill again Monday, Berry said.
CMP has argued that almost a month of sub-freezing temperatures, combined with an 18 percent hike in the standard offer rate for electricity, are the likely causes of high power bills.
Customers of power companies in 22 other U.S. states stretching from Michigan to Louisiana and Texas reported similar complaints of huge power bills after the cold snap four months ago, according to a recent Maine Sunday Telegram analysis of national news coverage.
Herling said Friday he couldn’t fully explain why more CMP customers have complained compared to other power companies. The cold weather was an issue that affected everyone, he said.
“It seems in Maine it is an issue that has reached a higher public awareness than in other areas,” Herling said.