CORRECTED: CMP investigation expands; memo tells of issue with meters

Tue, 07/17/2018 - 2:45pm

    On July 10, the Maine Public Utilities Commission gave the company hired to audit Central Maine Power’s meter and billing system the green light to conduct an investigation into CMP’s communication and customer service.

    Liberty Consulting Group is conducting both audits. According to PUC Chair Mark Vannoy, Liberty Consulting has extensive experience in customer service issues, and the company expects to complete the work on schedule.

    The first reports will be issued to the PUC in draft form in October.

    The  amount to pay Liberty Consulting is increasing by $31,220, to a new total of $401,040, according to Harry Lamphear of the PUC.  Because the Legislature overrode the governor’s veto of LD 1729, CMP shareholders might pay some of that cost.

    The PUC is also doing its own investigation into the issues.

    CMP spokesman Gail Rice said the company is cooperating with the investigations and has taken steps to improve its customer service, by holding additional training, hiring more agents and reorganizing the customer service department.

    On Jan. 1, an 18 percent increase in the energy supply standard offer went into effect, based on a November PUC decision. This played a role in the cost increases, according to a manager in CMP’s customer service department; however, according to PUC records of the November meeting, CMP had told the PUC the 18 percent increase would cause only an eight percent increase in the average household bill, not the tripling or quadrupling the state public advocate said many customers were seeing.

    In the meantime, according to a memo a CMP meter engineer, Trevor Henry, shared with the media and noted had been filed with the PUC, there were known issues with some of CMP’s smart meters, and for much longer than anyone at CMP was willing to acknowledge publicly. The memo was from Henry to General Electric. Henry blacked out the name of the recipient at GE.  A GE meter, model 1-210+c, was experiencing “erroneous clock speeds,” according to the 2017 memo. Henry said the problem with the meter first came to light in 2014, and GE gave CMP a temporary solution, a “soft reset” and a firmware solution that would have been more permanent. The problems recurred in 2017, according to the memo. However, CMP had not installed the firmware. Henry cited “politics” for why the fix had not been done.

    Corrected: Clock speeds have been reported to increase in warm weather and be associated with higher bills, such as took place in California. In subsequent conversation with CMP Spokesman Gail Rice, she noted Connecticut had experienced some problems with its meters which are "not the same ones we use." She said that that has not occurred in Maine, and that CMP notices immediately when the meters are speeding up and they are reset remotely. She said there does not appear to be any correlation between the high customer bills and the affected meters. She said the firmware fix has not been done because there are IT considerations that have to be worked out, but the company’s plan is to perform the fix as soon as possible.

    However, some customers with the GE meters dispute Rice’s assertion that the meters aren’t causing higher bills. One customer, Christine Bennett of Eliot, said she received one of the GE meters in 2016 and it immediately began registering more than her prior meter. When the meter was replaced with the same model this April, her bills returned to pre-smart meter “normal,” she said.

    The erroneous clock speeds are precipitated by some sort of power event, according to Henry. In the memo, Henry sought clarification from GE as to what kind of power event would cause the problem so the company could try to “tweak our distribution protection schemes,” thus avoiding the issue without doing the firmware upgrade.