The staff of Maine’s utilities regulatory commission said on Tuesday that customer complaints of high bills are not the result of a systemic error in Central Maine Power Co.’s metering or billing system but were caused by high energy usage in cold weather.

The finding, which supports results from an earlier independent auditor’s report, is the biggest milestone to date in the Maine Public Utilities Commission’s investigation into high bill complaints by some CMP ratepayers. The case has spanned more than 18 months and involved thousands of ratepayers, a threatened class action lawsuit and extended investigations by the commission.

The commission staff based its finding on the auditor’s report and examinations of bills from Emera Maine covering Greater Bangor. It compared bills from the winter of 2016-17 with the winter of 2017-18, and found the electricity usage for both CMP and Emera customers rose a comparable amount over those two winters.

The commission wants to resolve the billing and metering case by the end of this year. However, a key part of the case, a separate audit by the Maine public advocate, won’t be filed until this Friday, Sept. 6.

The commission staff’s report, made in an official filing called a bench analysis, is part of the regulatory body’s investigation into complaints by consumers that their bills have been excessively high.

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In the 12-page report, the staff said it is troubled that a significant number of customers have concerns about high use that have not been adequately addressed by CMP. It recommended that the commission’s three appointed members direct CMP to establish an independent review process for customers whose high bills remain unexplained.

“We are still reviewing the report, but we are pleased that the [commission] staff view supports the results of two internal CMP audits and the independent Liberty Consulting Group audit,” CMP spokeswoman Catharine Hartnett said. “We are also pleased that the [commission] staff supports the proposal to have an entity such as The Efficiency Maine Trust support an independent review process for customers who have experienced increased usage.”

The complaints have flowed in to CMP, the commission and the public advocate’s office since October 2017, when CMP installed a new billing system. The installation coincided with a strong windstorm that cut power to thousands of customers for up to a week, followed by a cold winter.

To date, no direct connection has been discovered between the high bills and CMP’s metering and billing system, which the company maintains is working correctly.

CMP has said the high bills are related to high consumer energy use. In August it put forth an initiative to create a $6 million fund to help ratepayers with billing complaints and a partnership with Efficiency Maine to help customers reduce energy costs.

Still, the commission and the public advocate received hundreds of filings, mostly consumer complaints, and more than 8,200 members joined a grassroots Facebook group to lament the high bills.

Lauren Loomis, a CMP customer and administrator for the CMP Ratepayers Unite Facebook group, described what she said are system anomalies in 57 pages of testimony filed Aug. 30 with the commission. She asked the commission to hire an independent third-party forensic analyst who specializes in smart meters to investigate her findings.

“The company should have been aware of the metering anomalies and should have known the seriousness of not performing the meter firmware upgrades as being harmful to their customers,” she wrote.

The upgrades are one of the problems cited in complaints by some ratepayers.

The commission first hired independent auditing firm Liberty Consulting Group of Pennsylvania to look into the complaints. Its report in December 2018 found that CMP’s metering and billing systems operated correctly, with some minor errors. It attributed the high bills to cold weather, not CMP’s system.

However, the auditors did fault CMP for not handling the transition to its new billing system in October 2017 well enough and causing concern among consumers.

The Office of the Public Advocate began its audit because customer complaints continued. It is looking at accounts with high bills since May 2018, the time after Liberty finished its audit.

A separate case before the commission is examining whether CMP’s allowable profit, which is set by the utilities commission, should be cut because the utility’s service has lagged in recent years.

The staff said its findings and recommendations are preliminary. It will make its final recommendations to the commission on Dec. 9 in its examiner’s report.

The schedule for the billing and metering case includes a technical conference Sept. 24-25, hearings Nov. 5-6 and final deliberations Dec. 20.