About 97,000 Central Maine Power customers saw their monthly bills increase 50 percent or more in December, January or February over the same month a year ago, according to information the power company provided to state regulators.

The information was contained in a letter CMP attorney Richard P. Hevey sent Tuesday to the Maine Public Utilities Commission, which is trying to figure out why hundreds of CMP customers saw dramatic spikes in their electricity bills during the three-month period beginning in December 2017.

Residential customers, some of whom saw their bills double or triple after an extreme cold spell and a modest increase in standard electricity rates, flooded regulators with more than 1,000 complaints.

Hevey’s letter was sent in response to a request the PUC made to the power company asking for a breakdown of its customers who had an increase of 50 percent or more in December, January or February, compared with the same months a year ago. The regulators also asked CMP to provide information about how many of those accounts filed complaints, and a history of communication between the customers and the electric company, and copies of the bills in question.

Hevey, the company’s senior counsel, said that 140,000 bills and 97,000 individual accounts out of CMP’s 500,000-customer database fit that criteria.

“Due to the large number of accounts and bills for which information needs to be retrieved, reproduced and analyzed, CMP would need to design and develop a computer programming solution to produce customer contact log information as well as copies of bills,” Hevey said in the letter. “Developing the necessary programming would likely take several weeks.”

“CMP does not believe that designing and developing such a programming solution to produce this information would be a wise use of company resources that could otherwise be used to respond to other issues related to the commission’s investigation,” Hevey wrote.

Instead, Hevey suggested that the PUC accept 200 random samples of the 97,000 accounts to provide the more detailed information. That approach could be accomplished in about two weeks, Hevey said.

Before a smaller random sample could be provided, a PUC hearing examiner would have to review the request and consult with other interested parties to see if they have objections, the PUC’s administrative director said Wednesday.

“It most likely would not be done at a hearing,” Harry Lanphear said. “The examiner would seek input from the affected parties and then make a ruling on the request.”

Lanphear didn’t answer a question about whether the PUC was surprised by the large number of customers who saw their bills increase. The commission operates like a court, so it won’t comment on cases that are currently before it, Lanphear explained.

“The hearing examiner will rule on the request and it will happen very quickly,” Lanphear said. “It’s an important case to us and to the people of Maine.”

Maine’s public advocate said he was “stunned” to see the huge number of customers whose bills rose so drastically.

Barry Hobbins said the company knew about the large number of customers whose bills increased, but sat on the information until Tuesday. “That’s the disappointing part,” he said in an interview Wednesday evening.

He also criticized Hevey and CMP for trying to convince the PUC to review a smaller sampling of affected customers from the pool of 97,000.

“That will not reinforce the credibility or integrity of CMP’s billing system if they want to take a shortcut,” Hobbins said. “The people of Maine want a full and thorough investigation of CMP’s billing system. They don’t want shortcuts.”

CMP spokeswoman Gail Rice said the actual number of complaints filed with the PUC is significantly less than the 97,000 customers whose bills increased significantly. Rice estimated that the company received complaints from about 1,600 customers.

Rice attributed the rise in some electric bills to what she called “a very brutal winter with extremely cold temperatures.”

The standard offer rate, which most residences use, also increased on Jan. 1 from 6.7 cents per kilowatt hour to 7.9 cents, Rice said.

An explanation for the high bills reported by customers has remained elusive. An initial inquiry by the PUC could not explain the increases, and its staff is continuing to investigate. But the commission also is advertising for a third party auditing firm to perform an intensive investigation, which is likely to take the rest of the year to complete.

Last week, CMP said that based on an internal review of about a quarter of its customer complaints, it could find no anomaly in its billing software or its smart meter performance – two factors that some speculated could have contributed to the high bills.

“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,” CEO Doug Herling said.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]

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