Maine’s top utilities regulator told lawmakers Monday that the Public Utilities Commission will likely delay a decision on Central Maine Power’s rate increase request until late this year or early next year.

PUC Chairman Philip Bartlett also said that when the commission does consider CMP’s request, it will certainly factor in the company’s ongoing customer service woes, but cannot “simply say no.”

Speaking to members of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, Bartlett stressed the PUC’s commitment to transparency during both the rate increase request and the ongoing investigation into CMP’s billing and metering problems.

PUC Chairman Philip Bartlett Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Bartlett noted that CMP did not initiate the rate request. The rate review process was triggered last year by about a dozen customers who complained about CMP’s returns and urged regulators to review the utility’s rate requirements.

Monday was the first chance for lawmakers to question Bartlett about CMP’s request for 10.65 percent rate increase, which came during a time when the state’s largest power company has been under scrutiny for mishandling the rollout of a new billing system and misleading the public about it. As a result, thousands of CMP customers received inaccurate bills, and poor customer service exacerbated the problem.

“There is no question that the high volume of problems, and complaints quickly spiraled out of control and we’ve been trying to get our arms around it since,” Bartlett said.

Lawmakers pressed Bartlett on how CMP could justify a rate increase at such a time.

Rep. Seth Berry of Bowdoinham, who chairs the energy committee and has become one of CMP’s most vocal critics, said CMP’s last rate increase of 6.5 percent, in 2013, was more than double the rate of inflation and came at a time the company was earning record profits. The company’s return to shareholders is reviewed annually by the PUC.

“It boggles my mind that they are asking for a double-digit increase during this time,” Berry said.

Rep. Christopher Kessler, D-South Portland, asked Bartlett if the PUC could reject the rate increase entirely.

Bartlett explained that commissioners can’t just reject an increase because customers might be upset with CMP. He did, however, say that the PUC can and will take into account CMP’s poor customer service over the last two years and there could be an opportunity to return some money back to ratepayers. If that happens, it likely would mean CMP would get a smaller return for its shareholders.

CMP’s has said its average return on equity was 9.43 percent from 2014 to 2018, but the PUC has calculated it as being closer to 10.53 percent.

CMP is owned by the Spanish energy giant Iberdrola and operated under the publicly traded company Avangrid, headquartered in Connecticut.

SUPPORT FOR A DELAY

The Public Advocate’s motion to delay a decision was supported in comments filed by two advocacy groups, and it received a conditional nod from CMP last week.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine said it was in favor of the delay. It wants the commission to make changes to CMP’s rate design that it says can help the state achieve climate policy goals, specifically around time-of-use rates that reward customers for using power when demand is lower.

The CMP Ratepayers Unite citizen group took a more-sweeping view of the need for the delay. The group wants the PUC to stay the case until anomalies with smart meters are fully investigated and other cases looking into reliability issues in western Maine are settled.

In its comments, CMP said it took no position regarding the motion, but had two concerns.

The first was not to extend the review past two or three months, with the goal of completing the PUC’s investigation before year’s end. The second was to account for any revenue loss for the company brought about by the delay. CMP also said that dragging out the commission’s decisions surrounding customer service performance, including any potential requirements to enhance service quality, could be “counterproductive and detrimental” to ratepayer interests.

CUSTOMER SERVICE, NETWORK RELIABILITY 

CMP has faced mounting public pressure over its mishandling of a new billing system rollout two years ago. The PUC has been investigating how it happened since.

Both CMP and an independent audit done last year for the PUC by the Liberty Consulting Group failed to find widespread technical problems to explain the high bills, but the Public Advocate’s Office and its consultant are reviewing a more recent time period.

In light of that, public advocate Barry Hobbins last week requested a stay of the rate increase.

The PUC will vote on that next week, but Bartlett seemed to indicate that it would be approved.

CMP said in a statement last week that would “fully and cooperatively comply with whatever procedural schedule the commission determines appropriate.”

If state regulators accept CMP’s proposal, the monthly invoice for the average residential customer would increase by $3. The monthly billing impact would have been greater, but CMP said it will limit any increases to the projected 2019 rate of inflation of 2.21 percent.

Bartlett said an increase might be necessary because CMP needs to improve customer service and that means adding more staff. He said the PUC will need to balance that with making sure customers are getting quality service.

CMP has said it also needs the rate increase to help pay for bolstering the reliability of its transmission network.

As for addressing customers who were overbilled, Bartlett said that’s been more difficult.

“We’re constantly trying to ask, how do you figure out who was harmed,” he said.

Bartlett, the PUC and the Public Advocate tried to get at that question last week, during three days of technical hearings at the commission’s offices in Hallowell. During the day-long sessions, experts from CMP and Avangrid maintained that the meters and billing system are producing accurate results and that the majority of complaints about high bills stemmed from customers using more electricity than they realized.

Linda Ball, who heads up the smart meter program at CMP, explained how customer service reps are trained to talk through the range of possible causes, such as a malfunctioning water pump. She suggested customers sign up for Energy Manager, the online tool that allows them to see when power is actually being used, and how much.

Staff Writer Tux Turkel contributed to this report.