CMP's bills are only part of the problem

By Seth Berry | Oct 18, 2019

The Public Utilities Commission staff report filed on Sept. 3 helps make the case for a consumer-owned electric utility in Maine.

This report says CMP did nothing wrong two years ago in sending astronomical bills to 97 thousand shocked customers in early 2018. While acknowledging that CMP did a horrific job handling customer complaints, the report relies on the utilities themselves for the data analyzed, blaming a cold winter for high usage. The report does not mention CMP’s badly botched handling of smart meters, including failing to fix them several years ago when technical problems came to light.

Public advocate Barry Hobbins reached a different conclusion. His office represents consumers at the PUC, so he hired his own auditors to review thousands of CMP invoices. Their analysis focused on billing problems between April 1, 2018 and Aug. 18, 2019 – long after the 2017-2018 cold snap. Among other issues, they found that CMP didn’t know how to install or test their new billing system, which continues to generate inaccurate and unreliable invoices.

“There is no cold weather now,” Hobbins pointed out, “and people are still having problems.”

What kind of problems? Last summer, the Press Herald wrote about CMP customers whose bills suddenly spiked without cause. Here’s one example: after Ron DePaul’s old meter in Sanford was replaced, his bill began to rise and fall wildly. At one point, CMP insisted that he owed $1,500. Unable to resolve the dispute, he finally decided to sell his house. But with that kind of electric bill, he couldn’t find any buyers and filed for bankruptcy. The company says he still owes $4,500.

CMP has mismanaged a billing and metering system that was bought for them by Maine taxpayers and ratepayers, with interest. But unlike most businesses, electric utilities don’t have to compete for customers or risk their own money. The PUC grants them an exclusive service territory and guarantees their profits. This may have worked when CMP was locally owned, but today the PUC’s small staff regulate a CMP that is owned by Connecticut-based Avangrid, a massive holding company which in turn, is 80% owned and wholly controlled by Spain-based Iberdrola. Our present system requires that the PUC (and for interstate transmission, federal regulators) keep CMP profitable, while at the same time serving the utility’s captive customers. It is a virtually impossible task.

How effectively do Maine’s “regulated monopolies” serve the public interest? Even with PUC oversight, Maine’s two investor-owned utilities (IOUs) recently gave us the nation’s worst record for power outages. They also bring us some of the highest rates for delivery of power. Around the country, consumer-owned utilities charge 15% less than IOUs, and have half the number and duration of outages. Maine’s own consumer-owned utilities also perform better, whether in Kennebunk, Madison, Houlton, or in rural Washington county, in a co-op twice the size of Rhode Island.

With a bipartisan group of cosponsors, I have introduced L.D. 1646, “An Act to Restore Local Ownership and Control of Maine’s Power Delivery Systems.” The bill would create the Maine Power Delivery Authority, a new consumer-owned utility that would buy out CMP and Emera Maine at fair prices and provide cheaper, more reliable electric delivery. The buy-out would be financed entirely by low-interest revenue bonds – no tax dollars would be involved – and paid back over 20 to 30 years. Current CMP and Emera workers would work for the new utility, with better conditions, pay and benefits. The MPDA would be supervised by a nonpartisan, independent 10-member board that will represent all consumers and geographic areas in Maine. The PUC is now analyzing our proposal and will report to the legislature early next year.

If LD 1646 passes, the commission will play a crucial role in overseeing the MPDA, to provide additional checks and balances. But the PUC will no longer have to guarantee corporate profits at exorbitant rates, while also attempting to protect customers.

A final thought: to conquer the climate crisis, electricity must be made king. The implications for our grid are profound. At today’s 13% rate of return, a massive and rapid shift in the design and management of our grid will not be easy, or cheap. Locally controlled and far more affordable, consumer-owned power offers a proven path to the resilient, renewable power on which our future urgently depends.

Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, co-chairs the Maine Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology.

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Comments (1)
Posted by: George Terrien | Oct 19, 2019 10:20

This initiative to create public utility may be the most important possibility we face to preserve and restore a beneficial relationship with the natural world, one we too often forget we share, rather than just own.  The proposal will integrate the interests of the generator of power with the that of the distributor of electricity, sorely needed where each separate interest wants only to sell more watts, and to transmit more watts.  Thuis integration will include the public interest, broadly defined.  Such realignment will look beyond the short-term profit of the shareholder to transform avarice on the back of our climate into well being for us all, in the world I truly hope we want to leave as our legacy, and not the empty shells of vitality and the loss of sustainability.

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