Two years after launch, Central Maine Power’s defective billing and metering system continues to generate inaccurate customer invoices, Maine’s public utilities watchdog said in a scathing report released Friday
The power company failed to follow industry best practices leading up to the launch of its SmartCare system in 2017 and did not catch and fix a number of system defects, according to twin reports released Friday by senior auditors from BerryDunn, a Portland consulting firm contracted by the Maine Office of the Public Advocate.
The auditors reached their conclusions about SmartCare system testing, and billing and metering defects after reviewing thousands of customer invoices and CMP documents and data.
Those defects meant customers were provided inaccurate meter read dates, kilowatt hour usage, days of use and delivery charges. Long periods of unbilled power use created confusing and misleading electricity bills with no explanation, the report said.
In some instances, CMP staff manually changed coding in the system to indicate a meter had been read when it had not been, auditors found. In other cases, customers may have been overcharged Maine sales tax because of billing errors.
“Based on these findings, we believe that the CMP SmartCare system, almost two years post go-live, has significant problems with how it is producing and presenting invoices for some of its customers,” the report on billing and metering defects concludes.
A Central Maine Power spokeswoman said the company will thoroughly review the audit results and respond by Oct. 16, as called for in the ongoing Maine Public Utilities Commission investigation into customer complaints.
“CMP has determined that the recent MPUC staff analysis, that aligned with the Liberty Consulting Group audit, determined there are no systemic issues with our SmartCare system following an analysis of customer data for every customer account and meter and more than 4 million bills,” company spokeswoman Catharine Hartnett said in a statement, referencing two previous reports that concluded there were no systemic problems in the company’s meter or billing systems. “Should the (Public Advocate) audit reveal an undiscovered malfunction with the SmartCare system, CMP will, of course, correct it.”
The company has previously blamed customers’ high bills on their energy usage and the weather, and not on failures of its billing system. It has hired more customer service representatives to better respond to customer complaints, and last month announced a $6 million fund to compensate customers with disputed bills.
While the BerryDunn analysts were unable to identify a single defect or set of defects that caused the customer complaints about high electricity bills, they also could not rule out that those complaints have merit or that system issues were isolated to the 1,370 accounts they analyzed. Central Maine Power has about 620,000 customer accounts.
From their analysis, “we believe the nature and extent of the issues we identified call into question the overall integrity of the system and its ability to provide accurate, timely and reliable invoices to CMP customers,” auditors said in the conclusion of the report on billing and metering defects.
In a Friday interview, Public Advocate Barry Hobbins said the findings show serious problems with CMP’s billing and metering system. He hopes the auditors’ recommendation that CMP’s system undergo supervised validation testing is taken seriously by the Public Utilities Commission, which regulates utilities in Maine.
“It is absolutely impossible to move forward in the present cloud of the lack of public confidence ratepayers have for Central Maine Power Co.,” Hobbins said.
“Problems are still being reported to our office and to the Public Utilities Commission, there are ongoing issues and they are not being fully addressed because we can’t get to the root of the problems,” Hobbins said. “To do that we need validation and testing by an independent third party.”
The findings differ from earlier reports concluding increased power use and a rate increase, not system glitches, caused high customer bills in winter 2017-18. At least 97,000 CMP customers received bills that were 50 percent or more higher than typical bills during that same period a year earlier.
A December 2018 Liberty Consulting Group audit said there were gaps in training and testing, but overall the company’s meter system was accurate. A report from Public Utilities Commission staff released this week reached the same conclusion.
Instead of focusing on the five-month period when the problems first arose, the public advocate looked at more than a year of customer invoices and testimony from May 2018 through this summer. It focused on 5,400 invoices from customer accounts believed to be inaccurate. BerryDunn was paid at least $240,000 by the Office of the Public Advocate for its work.
The public advocate’s review finds that CMP failed to conduct proper testing and risk analysis to catch defects before launching the system in 2017. The company’s responses to commission inquiries as late as June do not provide confidence that all defects are currently being caught, managed and used in decision-making, BerryDunn’s report said.
“Based on the documentation and testimony provided, it is not clear if CMP leadership and staff possess the knowledge of best practices and have experience to apply them,” the auditors said. “It is possible that some or all of these best practices were purposefully ignored.”
The conclusions mirror findings from a Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram investigation that showed CMP mismanaged the rollout of its new billing system by taking shortcuts in testing and training, and then misled the public.
Sumner Lipman, an attorney representing CMP customers in a lawsuit against the company, said the public advocate’s new report was significant because it found the same billing and metering issues in a different timeframe than earlier audits.
“It is very important because it shows that the problem persists, it hasn’t gone away,” Lipman said in an interview Friday.
“The other interesting part is that the staff of the PUC is saying it is all due to cold, there is nothing wrong,” he said. “They are not admitting they have a problem even now.”
The BerryDunn auditors found at least two flaws in CMP’s billing system and a number of other issues. One defect inaccurately reflects some meter read dates on customer invoices, impacting the number of days in a billing period. Another causes the first month of usage on a new account to be recorded as a zero, which causes expensive bills and excessive power use in later months, auditors found. Both defects create unpredictable and misleading bills, they said. Because of the billing lag, some customers may have been overcharged Maine sales tax because they were shown using more than the 750 kWh per month state tax exemption.
Central Maine Power already identified some of the issues in commission filings, but the severity and impact of the defects was not apparent in the company’s memo, auditors said.
Other issues were that customers have no way of knowing if a meter reading is an estimate or actual, that the system does not display the final meter reading when it is disconnected and it allows manual meter reading adjustments by CMP staff to be coded as actual readings.
To deal with the problems, CMP should run tests on its entire system under supervision from an independent third party, auditors recommended. Any customers who were overcharged should be repaid, and CMP’s shareholders, not the public, should bear the cost for testing and fixing the system. Central Maine Power is owned by Avangrid, a Connecticut energy company, which is a subsidiary of Iberdrola, a Spanish energy company.
News of enduring problems with CMP’s meter and billing system is not a surprise to Rob DuPaul. The Sanford resident said he had a hard time selling his home because of inexplicably high electricity bills, an issue he was unable to resolve with CMP despite repeated attempts. He is frustrated and skeptical of what he calls CMP’s excuses.
“Right now as it sits, they are trying to pull it off, even though we all know there is something wrong with the situation here, there is something wrong with the system,” DuPaul said.
Even with in-depth investigations and numerous reports, DuPaul is not sure there will be a resolution that benefits CMP customers.
“I don’t have confidence that it is going to change,” he said. “I believe anything that is going to happen with them, we are not going to get the good end of the stick here.”
The auditors’ reports were filed with the Maine Public Utilities Commission, which is conducting its own investigation into CMP’s problem bills and the quality of its customer service. A finding from the three-member commission is expected in December.
Published on Nov 7, 2018