June 13, 2013

PUC’s staff: CMP meters not living up to promises

The smart devices are not saving money or cutting energy use, the sta• says as the agency considers an audit. But the company insists the analysis is all wrong.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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“We absolutely delivered the project on cost and on schedule,” said John Carroll, a CMP spokesman.   

Carroll said the PUC staff is using a one-year revenue number to make a faulty analysis. He said CMP will update its 20-year cost-benefit projections soon, as part of a pending rate plan, and the program will show a net savings.   

Some of the savings come from operating efficiencies that aren’t easy to see, he said. One example is estimated bills, a practice that customers don’t like. CMP had to send 95,441 estimated bills in 2010. Last year, it issued 5,833.   

The disputed gap between costs and savings has the Maine Public Advocate’s Office siding with the PUC staff in seeking a formal audit. The office long has expressed doubt about how smart meters would save money.   

“Our concerns have been realized,” wrote Eric Bryant and Agnes Gormley, two senior lawyers in the office. “Even though the costs of the audit will add to the weight of customer bills, the company’s failure to deliver as promised demands this action.”   

If the PUC decides to audit the program, it will have to agree on which math to use to get the most accurate picture of costs and savings nearly 20 years from now.   

The challenge of peering far into the future extends to guessing how and when people will use technology, likely in ways that have not yet been imagined.   

One charge by the PUC staff is that the system CMP installed lacks the capacity to deliver what are known as supply-side benefits – ways, for instance, that customers can use technology to save money. To determine whether that’s true, the PUC first may have to assess the level of interest that people have now in participating in energy management programs.   

For example, late last year, CMP and the PUC publicized a new “time-of-use” rate for home and small-business customers who get their electricity from the state’s standard offer. The idea is to reward people who can wait to run high-wattage appliances, such as washing machines and water heaters, when demand is low. That reduces the need for firing up power plants that add cost and air pollution.   

The plan offered cheaper rates for electricity used during off-peak hours, after 8 p.m. and before 7 a.m. It also contained a penalty – above average rates for using power during the day.   

Only 120 customers signed up for the program.   

One reason may be that CMP and the PUC have done very little to make people aware of the option. Another factor, says Laney Brown, director of smart-grid planning and programs for CMP’s parent company, Iberdrola USA, is that many customers now get their electricity from competitive suppliers, not the standard offer. CMP plans to work with those companies to encourage them to offer time-of-use rates.   

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