‘Powerless’: CMP billing leaves customers with questions

Posted:  Tuesday, March 13, 2018 - 2:30pm

Customers from around the Central Maine Power service area, including some in Lincoln County, were surprised and dismayed to discover their usage on their most recent bill appears to have doubled or even tripled over the usage for the past year. Of the customers who approached Rep. Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham), co-chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities, and Technology, most said they had done nothing different – no new appliances or heat tapes had been added, and not heating with electricity. “It’s an enormous mystery,” Berry said.

Berry said when the customer calls CMP, he or she is told something has been added, or the meter wouldn’t read the additional usage. In some cases, CMP has offered to come out and check the meter to see if it is functioning properly. Berry said.

“Usually it is within the limits set. But CMP hasn’t been completely forthright about how the smart meters are functioning now.” The meters went offline during the October windstorm, and at one point only 48 percent were functioning. “It’s possible that something happened when they were being reset,” Berry said. “Right now, we just don’t know.”

Another issue is CMP changed its billing system at the same time, just before people began to see their bills skyrocket.

On Feb. 27, the Public Utilities Commission agreed to look further at the issue.

Berry said customers should examine their bills and if a bill has been exceptionally high, call CMP first to see if they can work it out. If the answer is unsatisfactory, the next step is to contact the Consumer Assistance and Safety Division of the Public Utilities Commission at 1-800-452-4699, between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. “It is best if you have some documentation, such as a bill that shows a marked increase,” Berry said. The information goes to the Public Advocate, who will put a disconnect hold on the account until the issue is resolved. “"Our committee also gets the information, eventually, so everyone who needs to have it will have it.”

CMP told the PUC it will cooperate with the investigation, and if there is evidence the meters, the billing or any other issue is CMP’s fault, it will “make it right” with customers. However, most customers in touch with Berry told him CMP is blaming a cold weather snap in January and some change to the customer’s home for the increase in their bills.

One such customer is Mary Johnston of Woolwich. She shared her story with the Wiscasset Newspaper in an email and phone interview. Johnston has lived in her home eight years. Until the windstorm, she said, the bill had been reasonable. “Our bill has never been over $225, that I can remember.” Even with five air conditioners in use, the bill never went above $175 last summer. “We have done many things to make our home energy-efficient. We installed new windows, a new hot water heater, and all new energy-efficient appliances,” she said. “All of a sudden, in October, our bill went up. It was worse in November, and in December, it was double what it had been in December of 2016.”

Johnston said she called CMP more than two dozen times during the winter of 2017-18. She said CMP insisted the problem had to be on her end. “I was told that I must have a defective appliance, probably a dryer. So I called Sears, who checked out the washer and dryer. There was nothing wrong with them. I called again, this time they blamed the hot tub. The hot tub installer came and put a meter on the tub to check the usage. Again, fine. Then it was supposedly my water pump.” Johnston said she paid a plumber to check the water pump, and it was  fine.

The whole time, Johnston said, she had been trying to sign up for the “Energy Manager” online through CMP. Energy Manager allows customers with a smart meter to see their usage in real time. She tried to sign up for over a month, and every time, the system wouldn’t let her sign up, so she called CMP again. “The reps told me that they were having problems with the program and they’d let me know when it was available to me.”

She wasn’t willing to take that for an answer, and told CMP she wanted a printout of her usage, by day. On the printout, she noticed something strange. The reports said the family used electricity every day in November and October, but for the last two days of October and the first day of November, there was no electricity, due to the storm. “How could we be using any power when we didn’t even have power? We were using our generator. I called CMP, and after putting me on hold two or three times to talk to their manager, they said that they didn’t go by the numbers that they sent me to bill me. Those were estimates, not actual usage.”

None of it was making sense to Johnston. “They finally told me  again that it was something wrong with my house, and after I told them all the appliances had been checked, they told me that electricity had to be ‘running to ground’ somewhere. So I called an electrician and, surprise ... there was nothing running to ground.” 

She asled CMP to come and check her meter. CMP didn't show up when scheduled, gave her a $50 credit for the inconvenience and rescheduled. This time, CMP came and sent a letter showing the meter was operating within normal limits.

“Great,” she said. “So now what? We are helpless to the power company. I’ve hired and paid for numerous people to come and check my house for issues, and none of them found any issues. We use pellet fuel, not electricity or oil, for heat. Our pellet stove runs almost every day in the winter months, and the only difference is that we have new doors and windows this year, so even with the cold snap, we used less fuel. Now I wait for my electricity bill and pray I can afford it.”

Johnston said she filed a complaint with the PUC. “I hope this mess gets straightened out. I can’t afford to have my bill more than double what it has been for the last eight winters. As a consumer, I feel trapped and powerless. I’m hoping the PUC’s investigation uncovers the issue and CMP is forced to make things right with the customers that have been affected by their errors.

An investigator in CMP's special unit focusing on the billing and meter issues wouldn't speak directly about Johnston's case. He spoke in general about the issues customers are facing, and expressed concern that the representatives some customers spoke to had not tried to help diagnose the issue, instead, they read a laundry list of possible issues. That is a common complaint once customers are sent to his unit. However, part of the original troubleshooting is identifying appliances in the home which might malfunction. Once a customer says there have been no changes and everything is in working order, he said, the next step should be escalation without spending hundreds of dollars in a fruitless search for a problem that might not be on their end.

"Without knowing what is in the house, the reps are trained to try to identify possible issues. I absolutely understand how frustrated some customers are feeling when there is clearly an anomaly. However, once a person has filed a complaint with the PUC, he or she will be directed to one of our specialists, and we should have better luck identifying the customer's issue."