The Maine Public Utilities Commission voted Tuesday to launch a full investigation into Central Maine Power’s billing system after a preliminary, three-week inquiry failed to reveal why more than 1,000 CMP customers received inexplicably high utility bills this winter.

The broader probe will be conducted in tandem with an inquiry by the PUC’s staff, which has been requesting and studying aspects of CMP’s billing, meter and customer service data.

That ongoing discovery effort will be combined with what’s known as a management audit, which will involve hiring at least one outside consultant to conduct a technical review of meter and billing operations.

No precise timeline was given to conclude the investigation. But the need to issue a request for proposals, hire an expert and conduct the audit means that the process is likely to take several months.

In the meantime, the PUC advised customers with disputed bills to pay their utility bills by their due date. However, consumers with an active payment dispute at the PUC’s consumer assistance division are encouraged to pay any portion of their bills that isn’t in dispute, a calculus that’s being made on a case-by-case basis.

“We always encourage customers to make some payments toward their bills, as they have used at least some electricity,” said Harry Lanphear, the PUC’s spokesman. “This way, they don’t get too far behind once the dispute concludes. If they dispute their entire bill, then they don’t have to pay any of it during their dispute. Of course, when the dispute is resolved, they will owe whatever is determined in their individual case.”

Maine law also bars electric companies from shutting off customers between Nov. 15 and April 15, as long as they make arrangements to pay their bills. During this period, commission rules prohibit utilities from disconnecting a residential customer for non-payment without first receiving permission from the consumer division.

REQUEST ON DISCONNECT NOTICES

The Office of the Public Advocate is asking the commission to order CMP not to disconnect any customers after the so-called winter disconnect period expires. It also requested a stay on issuing new disconnection notices, pending the outcome of the initial investigation. Those requests are under review, with a ruling likely by April 4.

Barry Hobbins, the public advocate, said he’s worried that some people will just ignore their bills in the interim, or aren’t financially able to make outsized payments.

“I think they need a safety net until we figure this out,” he said.

Hobbins also said that by launching a full investigation, the PUC has taken pressure off customers and placed it on CMP to help find an explanation.

“I think CMP had shifted the burden to consumers,” Hobbins said, “making them think, ‘Maybe I’ve done something wrong.’ Now the burden has shifted to the utility.”

After the PUC action, CMP issued a statement saying it welcomed the agency’s help in auditing its systems as it searches for an underlying cause of the billing spikes. The company also said it has trained a new team of experts to work on customer issues, and that the team was working through CMP’s full list of complaints to resolve outstanding inquiries as quickly as possible.

“Over the past several months,” the company said, “Central Maine Power customers have submitted a larger than normal number of complaints relative to high electric bills. We take these complaints seriously and are taking steps to address each and every one.”

Complaints over high bills spiked in December and January and are still being filed at the PUC, but getting to the bottom of issue is complicated by several factors. The standard offer – the per kilowatt-hour price that most customers pay for their electricity supply – increased by 18 percent in January. Three weeks of brutally cold weather that coincided with the Christmas holiday season also caused electricity use to jump, a pattern seen across much of the country.

CUSTOMER REFUNDS IF WARRANTED

Some customers who receive their electric supply from competitive providers also saw unexpectedly high rate hikes.

But hundreds of customers were shocked by bills that increased far beyond what could easily be explained by those factors. Some bills were double, triple or greater over the same period last year. The PUC alone received more than 1,000 complaints.

Seeking answers, the agency last month began an initial inquiry, called a summary audit. It filed a data request with CMP for information on about two dozen aspects of its electricity-delivery operation, including meters and the company’s new billing system, which was installed last year.

But that process apparently hasn’t come up with a full explanation, prompting the commission to take a deeper dive.

If the agency ultimately finds that CMP is at fault, Lanphear said, it could take steps that include issuing an administrative penalty or directing the utility to take specific actions to remedy inadequate service. The commission also can order customer refunds.

As the examination moves to its next step, customers are continuing to file complaints at the PUC about their winter bills.

Pamela Morgan of Minot wrote:

“Can you please look into my bills? My usage has (more than) doubled in the last three months. I have attached my bills for the last three years showing monthly usages for the year. I do not see how this could have happened. These bills are for over $600/month for a mobile and a garage. We have not done anything different. These costs are not in my budget and I do not know how I can pay these.”

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