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April 6, 2018

CMP: Smart meters, new billing system aren't the cause of higher electric bills

Courtesy / CMP
Courtesy / CMP
Central Maine Power Co. President and CEO Doug Herling, in a conference call this morning with reporters, said the company's internal audit of customer complaints is two-thirds completed and so far has not found evidence that smart meters or a new billing system have caused higher-than-normal electric bills since Oct. 30.

Central Maine Power Co. President and CEO Doug Herling in a conference call with reporters this morning reported that the company's internal audit of customer complaints is two-thirds completed and so far has not found evidence that smart meters or a new billing system have caused their higher-than-normal bills.

CMP's internal audit is separate from the formal audit launched by the Maine Public Utilities Commission in response to the 1,580 customer complaints about unusually high electric bills received after CMP's new billing system took effect on Oct. 30. In an April 3 filing, the PUC reported that CMP has responded to eight of the 23 questions posed so far, but agreed to give the company more time given the large amount of information being sought related to customer account information and internal communications.

"We have not found any issues with our smart meters, they have performed accurately," Herling said during the conference call with Mainebiz and more than a dozen Maine news organizations. "We feel very confident the smart meters are working properly."

Herling said that since January, CMP has tested 1,600 smart meters for their accuracy; by comparison, it tested only 444 for the entire year in 2017. Of the 1,600 meters tested, he said, only one was found to be not working properly and it was an older type of meter.

Herling, who was joined by CMP Vice President Eric Stinneford and Vice President of Customer Service Beth Nowack Cowen, said the company's internal audit so far also had not found evidence that "human error" or "system failure" were causing customers' electric bills to be unusually higher than normal.

So why so many complaints, which Herling acknowledged his peers at Emera Maine and other Maine utilities have not been receiving in comparable numbers?

In his opening statement, he identified several factors that might have contributed to the volume of complaints:

  • The new billing system launched on Oct. 30, the same day that a powerful storm swept through Maine, and was immediately followed by the largest power outage in CMP's history. With the company's focus being on restoring power in the days and weeks after the storm, Herling acknowledged the company's attention was diverted from explaining adequately why customers electric bills looked different in November as a result of the new billing system.
  • The prolonged cold spell that occurred at the end of December into January.
  • An 18% increase in CMP customers' standard offer rate, which is part of their bill but is actually a cost driven by the electricity suppliers and not CMP's transmission and distribution costs. Stinneford added that some CMP customers who've chosen to receive power through competitive electricity providers had seen prices go up by 40% to 50%.

"We have not found any correlation between the new billing system and the amount of usage on the bills," Herling added. "We have not found any impact from the billing system that is driving up the usage … At this point in time we have not found anything about our system or smart meters that would artificially increase customer's usage."

Cowen said CMP has increased its staffing by 38% to improve its handling of customer complaints, including additional staff at its call centers and those working nights and on weekends.

Here's what PUC is investigating

In their March 1 order launching a summary investigation into customers' complaints about CMP's metering, billing and customer communications practices that were reported to the PUC over the last several months, PUC Chairman Mark Vannoy and Commissioners R. Bruce Williamson and Randall Davis laid out the three-fold scope of the investigation:

Metering issues:

  • Are CMP's meters accurately reading customer usage?

"We note that at the same time that CMP initiated its new billing system, CMP's service territory experienced a severe storm which resulted in approximately 404,000 customer Interruptions," the order stated, adding that PUC would be looking into the question of whether CMP's meters are "accurately communicating" with its new billing system.

Billing issues:

  • Are CMP's bills accurately reflecting usage?
  • Are CMP's bills utilizing the correct rates?
  • Are CMP's bills accurately calculating the total bill?
  • Is the company able to identify billing error problems related to its new CIS billing system?
  • What problems has the company identified to date?
  • Is the company properly addressing such problems?

Customer communication:

  • Is CMP answering and responding to calls from customers within a reasonable time frame?
  • How has CMP reacted and responded to customer complaints on high bills?
  • Is CMP providing reasonable and adequate responses to customers' calls?
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