Residents inspect storm damage along Temple Avenue in Saco on the morning of Oct. 30. State regulators have found that CMP and Emera Maine responded “reasonably” to the tens of thousands of power outages caused by the storm Staff photo by Jill Brady

The Maine Public Utilities Commission has found that Central Maine Power Co. and Emera Maine reacted “reasonably” to an intense rain and wind storm that knocked out power to much of the state last October, but said both companies failed to keep customers informed about outages and efforts to get their power restored.

The PUC in a report issued late Friday instructed each company to file a report by Dec. 1 that includes a “specific plan to improve the accuracy of its outage and restoration reporting and customer accessibility to such information.”

The PUC report did not address widespread customer complaints about CMP’s billing system, which is the subject of a separate investigation.

On Oct. 29, a major rain and wind storm swept into Maine and caused significant outages in communities served by CMP and Emera. Roughly 467,000 CMP customers and 90,000 Emera customers lost power because of the storm. In several areas, customers were without electricity for more than a week.

The PUC report is the product of a fact-finding probe that included an examination of storm reports filed by the two utilities, and two subsequent technical conferences in which CMP and Emera representatives answered questions posed by PUC staff. The PUC said it initiated the probe because storm damage was so extensive.

PREPARATION SAID TO BE ADEQUATE

The PUC’s objective was to assess whether CMP and Emera adequately prepared for the storm by monitoring weather forecasts and securing additional repair crews from inside and outside the state when it became clear the storm was likely to cause heavy damage. It also examined how the two utilities responded to the damage, including whether their outage data and estimates of when power would be restored were accurate and readily accessible to customers.

Central Maine Power’s Advanced Metering Infrastructure – known as “smart meters” – failed to accurately convey outage data during last October’s storms, the PUC said. AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

The PUC found that both CMP and Emera took reasonable steps to prepare for the storm, but it found problems with both companies’ outage reporting systems.

In CMP’s case, the PUC said the company’s Advanced Metering Infrastructure, or AMI – also known as “smart meters” – often failed to accurately convey outage data. Many customers complained that CMP’s phone- and web-based outage reporting systems provided inconsistent or false information following the storm.

“In instances where a significant part of the system is without power, CMP has acknowledged that the AMI system does not work well,” the PUC report says. “The lack of actual AMI data in the October storm may have caused CMP to rely more heavily on the outage assumptions feeding into the predictive modeling algorithm. CMP has acknowledged that the model produced flawed results in certain instances … ”

On Wednesday, CMP President and CEO Doug Herling defended the smart metering system, saying it “gave us excellent data on the scope of damage, and as repairs progressed, it allowed us to confirm restoration more efficiently.”

However, Herling also said the company is working on improvements to make its smart meter network less vulnerable to power outages.

NO COMMENT FROM CMP

On Friday, CMP spokeswoman Gail Rice said the company was still reviewing the PUC report and did not have an immediate comment on it. Rice said CMP conducts its own reviews following major storms and already has taken some corrective actions including buying more generators for key locations, working to make its outage reporting process more consistent and holding meetings with town, city, county and state emergency management agencies on how to best coordinate efforts to respond to major storms.

Emera appears to have done a better job of accurately reporting outages, the PUC report says, but some customers complained of having difficulty accessing the information following the storm. The PUC instructed Emera to file a report explaining how it intends to improve customer access to outage information.

The PUC instructed both CMP and Emera to file their plans by Dec. 1.

The PUC report’s findings come as CMP finds itself in the eye of growing controversy since the October storm.

Stunned by electric bills that were as much as four times the norm, hundreds of people filed complaints with the PUC and the Public Advocate’s office.

In April, CMP reported that 97,000 individual accounts saw bills increase 50 percent or more in December, January and February. CMP has acknowledged that new billing software introduced last October created issues for some customers, but the company attributed the spike in power bills to an 18 percent increase in the standard-offer electricity cost, along with higher electricity consumption during an extreme cold snap in December and January.

Several customers formed an online group to explore legal action, culminating last month in a lawsuit seeking class-action status and relief for overpayments.

Lipman & Katz, based in Augusta, filed the lawsuit July 19 in Cumberland County Superior Court. Napoli Shkolnik, a New York City law office, and Trafton, Matzen, Belleau and Frenette of Auburn are joining Lipman & Katz in the case. The firm expects to represent hundreds of people in the case.

PARALLEL PROBE CONTINUES

There’s also a parallel investigation underway by an independent consultant. Liberty Consulting Group of Pennsylvania is also examining CMP’s customer service, billing system and smart-meter network. Draft reports from Liberty and commission staff are expected in early October, according to a PUC spokesman.

Separately, in mid-July, the PUC voted to launch a new investigation into whether CMP had been overcharging its customers. PUC Chairman Mark Vannoy said the vote came in response to a complaint filed by over a dozen CMP customers on May 29. The complaint, led by former state Rep. Herbert Adams, D-Portland, accuses CMP of charging rates that exceed the state limit for the utility’s return on equity. It also alleges that CMP has been deliberately gouging customers to recoup losses from the October storm.

CMP filed a response to the complaint June 8, denying the allegations and requesting that the complaint be dismissed.

On July 25, the PUC dismissed the portion of the complaint related to the October storm, but it approved the request for a general rate investigation. It gave CMP an Oct. 15 deadline to file the rate case.

At the time, Vannoy said it is appropriate to revisit CMP’s rates this year, and that the utility’s most recent rate case was in 2014. He noted that the outcome of a rate case is unpredictable and will not necessarily result in lower bills for customers.

CMP serves more than 600,000 customers in southern and central Maine. Its parent company Avangrid is a subsidiary of Iberdrola, a multinational utility company headquartered in Spain.

Emera serves about 159,000 customers in central and northern Maine. It is a wholly owned subsidiary of Emera Inc., a Canadian energy company based in Nova Scotia.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy contributed to this report.

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: jcraiganderson