Central Maine Power Co. said it’s “embarrassing” that its website again failed to provide timely, accurate information in the wake of a powerful storm, with the problems customers faced following Thursday’s nor’easter reminiscent of what they experienced after a wind and rainstorm two years ago.

At the peak, about 200,000 customers in the state were out of power Thursday – more than 175,000 in CMP’s service area in central and southern Maine and about 38,000 in northern Maine who get their electricity from Emera Maine.

As the outages cascaded Thursday morning, customers reported having trouble accessing the CMP website to check on the status of outages or to report that they had lost power. For some customers, CMP said it would take decades for the power to be restored, with an estimate of Jan. 1, 2068.

A screen shot of CMP’s outage list for Pownal on Thursday, indicating the estimated time to restore service.

CMP spokeswoman Catharine Hartnett said that an IT program that the company was running Thursday morning “inadvertently caused a field not to behave correctly,” generating the false 2068 restoration time. She said heavy use of the site also caused some of the problems.

The company took the site down briefly late Thursday morning, she said, to make it more stable. When access to the site was restored, it reported that CMP was “assessing” restoration times, and Hartnett said that will remain the case until the utility is sure that it can provide an accurate estimate of when power will be back on.

“It’s embarrassing,” Hartnett admitted but said it is the first time the site has had problems since an intense wind and rainstorm in October 2017. In the wake of that storm, the Maine Public Utilities Commission found that CMP and Emera Maine handled the storm “reasonably,” although it ordered both utilities to provide better information to customers in the wake of widespread outages.

In a follow-up report to regulators, CMP told the commission that it had either taken or would be taking steps to enhance its ability to track outages. For instance, some equipment designed to monitor the electric system failed in a power outage, so CMP upgraded the system to make the equipment ready to be powered by generators and equipped with batteries with longer run times. Those changes were expected to help the utility provide better estimates of when power will be restored, the company said.

The utilities also improved communications with emergency management directors and stepped up training for managers on dealing with widespread outages.

Hartnett said she was focused on communications about the storm and recovery Thursday and couldn’t comment on how the company had been following the plan laid out to regulators.

CONFUSED COMMUNICATIONS

Customers said they encountered frustrating delays in reporting outages and getting information on repairs Thursday morning.

Jessica Blanchette of Saco said she called CMP to report the outage when she lost power around 5 a.m. and got a recording saying agents weren’t available to take her call.

After she fired up her generator, Blanchette said, she tried to report the problem online, but got an error message.

Blanchette said she finally connected online to report the power failure and found out that her neighbors had beat her to it. Her power was restored shortly before noon, she said.

CMP sent out a tweet acknowledging the problems on its website and then another that read, “Hello, have you since been able to report this?”

It wasn’t clear who the company was attempting to contact, so one follower replied, “Are you talking to me?” and another asked, “Are you asking about the overcharge from two years back? Yes, I did report that.”

Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, a frequent CMP critic, mocked the company’s web problems in a note that contained the hashtags “#oops #greatsystem #guesswhospayingforit #yesyou #plus13percentinterest #pluscorporatetaxes.”

“We may have the most and longest outages in the country and among the highest delivery rates, but your power will likely be restored in just over 48 years,” said Berry, referencing the erroneous 2068 restoration window. Berry wants the state to explore converting CMP to a consumer-owned utility.

This isn’t the first time that CMP has had issues with its website. During the storm two years ago, the company directed customers to the site for updates on outages and estimated restoration times, but much of the information was wrong. The company said it would fix the issues.

That was the start of a long period of problems for the utility, which launched a new software billing system the same time the 2017 storm struck. A three-month period following the launch showed 97,000 customers were getting bills 50 percent higher than the same period a year before, prompting thousands of complaints to regulators.

Two ensuing audits showed CMP’s problems were not caused by the billing software, or the activation of a new digital metering system. But a recent finding by the Public Advocate’s office challenges those audits, saying problems with the billing and metering systems continue to produce inaccurate bills.

A separate investigation by the Press Herald showed the company had mismanaged the rollout of its billing software, failed to deliver adequate customer service and misled the public.

The matter is before the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

In a Twitter message, CMP said it is “working diligently” to fix technical issues on its website. The company also urged people to stay away from downed lines and report outages to 800-696-1000.

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