On the final days of October 2017, Maine was hit by a violent storm that knocked out power to a record number of Central Maine Power customers.

By chance, it was the same week CMP chose to launch a long-delayed switch over to a new $57 million billing system, called SmartCare.

Soon after, customers started complaining about higher-than-expected bills. Some were double or triple the same period a year earlier.

Those complaints spiked in the winter of 2018, which coincided with a severe cold snap and hike in electricity supply rates.

That led the Maine Public Utilities Commission to look into the claims. The agency regulates CMP’s earnings and sets standards for customer service.

Over the past two years, experts have crunched literally millions of points of data. The PUC has received more than 3,000 customer complaints and been buried by hundreds of hours of testimony and public hearings. A separate investigation by the Portland Press Herald based on hundreds of PUC documents showed that CMP had mismanaged the rollout and misled the public.


Meanwhile, the PUC studied the findings of three separate analyses, plus one by CMP itself.

One was by its staff.

One was by a consultant it hired, Liberty Consulting Group. It cost $400,000.

One was by BerryDunn, a consultant hired by the Office of Public Advocate. It cost $240,000.

Well, there is no answer yet.

But sorting it out matters  — not only to those with disputed bills, but also to anyone who pays for CMP’s electric service.


That’s because the PUC is conducting a second, related case looking at the rates CMP charges its 600,000 customers.

CMP says it needs $46.5 million for the increased cost of trimming trees to prevent outages and restoring power after major storms, among other things. That 10.65 percent hike would add another $3 a month to the average home bill of $88.

So here we are. The regulators want to wrap everything up by the end of the year. But coming to any conclusion won’t be easy.

That’s because conflicting narratives have emerged:

It disagrees with nearly all CMP’s contentions.

PUC staff are career utility analysts and attorneys who provide guidance for the commissioners and they dropped a bomb last winter by saying:


So with a few months before decision time, here’s where things stand:

It notes that its electricity sales and customer growth are nearly flat. It says the proposed penalty would be unprecedented at the Maine PUC, and the 8.75 percent return on equity would be among the lowest in the country. The PUC is obligated by Maine law to set a rate of return that won’t harm the company’s credit rating and its ability to raise capital, which it needs to improve its infrastructure.

CMP isn’t entitled to any rate increase, until SmartCare is totally fixed. That will require an independent retest of the system, so the PUC should postpone any final decisions until then.

The PUC staff is still gathering information. It’s scheduled to sum up its final recommendations in the SmartCare probe in November, and in the rate case in December.  Then it’s up to the three commissioners.

But whatever the PUC eventually decides, it’s not likely to be the last word.

Angry customers are seeking a class-action lawsuit against CMP. Some have chronicled unexplained charges totaling thousands of dollars and wrongful disconnect notices. Their lawyers say CMP is trying hard to get out of paying what they estimate to be $140 million in damages.

A judge is waiting to see what happens at the PUC, before deciding whether the case can go forward.

With so much still in dispute, look for SmartCare and CMP to stay in the headlines in 2020.

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