Maine utility regulators have launched a formal inquiry into the customer service of the state's largest electricity utility following the release of an independent audit after customers complained of a perceived unexplained increase in their power bills.
The Maine Public Utilities Commission voted 3-0 on Jan. 8 to launch an investigation into an alleged spike in electricity bills in late 2017 and 2018 for customers of Central Maine Power Co., a subsidiary of Avangrid Inc. The regulatory move follows the Dec. 20, 2018, release of an independent audit report into CMP's metering and billing systems that was undertaken by the Liberty Consulting Group, on behalf of the PUC. If found to be warranted, the PUC could direct the utility to correct and refund any possible overbilling in an upcoming rate order.
In February 2018, the PUC made the initial move towards an inquiry by directing staff to gather information on CMP operations related to issues such as electricity meter performance, billing accuracy and customer service after the agency received a sharp rise in customer complaints against CMP, including perceived unexplained increases in energy bills.
In an email, PUC spokesperson Harry Lanphear said that while the Liberty audit did not find a systemic billing or smart metering problem, which would have resulted in high bill complaints, the commission determined that customer communication and service issues raised in the audit warrant further investigation.
Specifically, the audit found that CMP took 22% longer to handle calls following the November 2017 introduction of its customer information system, SmartCare, and that many calls were abandoned by customers before the company could respond. The audit said CMP consistently failed to meet its target of answering 80% of customer calls within 45 seconds, a target consistent with industry experience as it struggled to address customer billing issues in the second and third quarters of 2018.
"A lack of sufficient staffing has materially contributed to long answer and call handling times," said the audit. "A lack of sufficient experience and supervision have impaired the ability to resolve specific customer inquiries and complaints and to address systemic issues underlying them."
Lanphear explained that addressing the customer service issues as part of a rate investigation will allow the commission to resolve any possible imprudence concerning the utility's performance in protecting ratepayers and to incorporate any rate adjustments if found to be appropriate as part of the rate order.
Lanphear said that outsider intervenors are allowed to conduct discovery and provide their own analysis to the commission. In addition, CMP is allowed to provide their own analysis, which along with the rest would become subject of public hearings, he said.
CMP spokesperson Catherine Hartnett said in a statement that the utility finds the PUC's decision to examine the metering, billing and bill error questions in a new, fully adjudicated investigation while addressing the customer communications and customer service questions through the rate case to be a reasonable approach. Hartnett said CMP also looks forward to a full and fair examination of the issues raised by the independent audit.