Rita George sits in her modest, 733-square foot home in Shapleigh. George heats her one-story house with kerosene and doesn't have an electric range. Still, she received a $242 electricity bill for March. 

For more than two years, Rita George has been trying to get an explanation for how the electric bills for the 730-square-foot house she owns in Shapleigh could be so high — more than $500 a month at times.

Despite years of wrangling with her electricity provider, Central Maine Power Co., she has not heard an answer that makes sense to her. Now, an independent program is being set up to help customers who feel they have been billed inaccurately. But George does not appear to be eligible to participate.

The new program is one of the results of a state investigation into CMP’s metering and billing system, which concluded in late January, more than two years after CMP rolled out its new billing platform in late 2017. Though the widely publicized investigation found no “systemic” issues with CMP’s billing system, it did find that the company needs to fix many defects and bugs in the system, called SmartCare.

In addition to levying a record-setting $10 million penalty against CMP for poor customer service, regulators also required CMP to hire a third party to conduct independent electricity use audits to help customers resolve their complaints.

The program will be for those with “significant increases in usage that is ongoing and unresolved” with an aim to “provide a path to restore trust between CMP and its customers,” according to the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

The audit program will either help customers understand their usage and why their bills are higher than they think they should be, or provide more information for the commission to resolve their complaints.

CMP shareholders are funding the program, but it will be overseen by the commission, said Harry Lanphear, the commission’s administrative director. Earlier this month, CMP submitted the description of the program to regulators that it will use to find the third-party auditor who will conduct the program. The third-party auditor has not yet been selected, and the COVID-19 pandemic has meant the program’s start date is uncertain.

It’s unclear how many CMP customers would qualify for the program. The commission wrote in its order closing the investigation in February that “approximately 1,247 customers” filed a complaint of high usage with either CMP or the commission that hadn’t been resolved to the customer’s satisfaction.

The commission now anticipates fewer than 1,000 customers will be eligible for the program, Lanphear said. CMP envisions an even smaller number. The potential third-party “should provide a plan to complete an estimate of 250 in-home audits within a 9 month period,” the company wrote in its plan.

Regulators are trying to identify more people, however, with unresolved complaints who could be part of the independent audit program. Last week, the commission sent letters to more than 4,300 customers who had either contacted the commission or CMP with complaints of high bills during the course of the investigation, said Derek Davidson, the director of the commission’s Consumer Assistance and Safety Division.

The letters said to contact the commission if their complaints remain unresolved. Based on how many responses the commission receives, it will have an idea of how many people could be eligible for the independent electricity use audit.

But while the commission is trying to find people with inaccurate bills, its rules for who can participate in the audit program may simultaneously exclude some of them. That appears to be the case for George.

To participate in the program, customers must have fully complied with a payment arrangement the commission put in place in 2018 for customers who believed their bills were inaccurate. That arrangement requires customers who experienced bill increases of more than 25 percent over the previous year to pay only the previous year’s amount.

This was a problem for George, who moved into her house in 2017, shortly before SmartCare went live, and had no prior year consumption to compare her usage to. She also declined to pay anything to CMP after she said one of the company’s customer service representatives told her that if she agreed to the set aside amount, she could not dispute future bills.

George now owes the company more than $6,000, according to her bills. She believes she owes the company roughly half that total.

“I would be a perfect candidate for [the audit program],” George said. “But because I didn’t agree to the set-aside means I can’t be one.”

In early 2018, George complained to CMP and electricity regulators because her bills were more than $200 a month. She heats with kerosene and had all new appliances when she moved into the house the year before, she said, so she couldn’t understand why her bills were so high.

Then they got higher. For the first three months of 2019, the bills were roughly $500 a month. According to CMP, George and her daughter were using more than 3,000 kilowatt hours a month over that time, about six times what the average Maine household uses over the same period.

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CMP tested George’s meter and told her it was accurately recording her usage. She had two different electricians look at her home to try and find the problem, she said, and both said there was no way she could be using that much electricity.

She hoped the commission’s investigation would shed some light on her situation, but it didn’t. Then last month, regulators at the commission closed her complaint, ruling that “the cause of your high electricity usage” was “your particular usage habits” and not a problem with CMP’s system, citing the fact that George’s consumption fell last winter after her daughter moved out and she had new windows installed. (George’s February 2019 bill was $506. Her bill this February was $221.)

As the pandemic began and George was unsure if she would still have her job at Lowe’s, she offered to pay CMP $110 a month. But that wasn’t enough to cover her average monthly bill over the last 12 months, which was $167, the commission said in a letter dated April 9.

It asked her to pay a flat rate of $217 a month, which would cover her monthly bill and allow her to pay $50 a month toward her balance for the next 10 years. George appealed the commission’s decision last month and is waiting to hear back.

The fact that George’s bills have come down in recent months also makes her ineligible for the audit program.

To participate in the program, participants must still have bills they believe are unreasonably high into 2020. While that requirement makes sense from a logistical standpoint — it can be difficult for auditors to evaluate past conditions — it doesn’t help customers who experienced what they believe to be inaccurate bills before this year.

In arguments filed with the commission last year during its investigation, the Office of the Public Advocate, which represents the interests of ratepayers, said it had a “significant concern” with efforts to limit the amount of customers eligible for the audit program.

The Office of the Public Advocate went so far as to propose “a public information campaign” to encourage customers to file complaints so they could be counted in the program, adding that “we remain open to other ideas that would not exclude these customers from possible remedies and closure.”

The requirements set by the commission will exclude “mostly everyone” in CMP Ratepayers Unite, a group of customers seeking answers for high bills that participated in the investigation, according to Lauren Loomis, a moderator for the group’s Facebook page. The group has more than 8,600 members.

Many of the complaints have been the result of software defects identified by CMP, or, in some cases, the correction of defects.

There are still 20 defects in the SmartCare system that remain unresolved, according to a CMP update to regulators filed earlier this month.

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The company anticipates fixing all of those defects within nine months after the “Covid-19 event” ends, CMP told the commission. If things go back to normal on June 1, that would mean CMP will have taken nearly three and a half years to fix its billing system.

But CMP spokesperson Catharine Hartnett said the company is ahead of the schedule it filed with the commission. She added that “in most cases, the defect is of a nature that the customer is never impacted by it.”

But due in part to those defects, 100,000 customers received at least one bill containing an error that affected the amount owed since late 2017 when SmartCare went online, said Davidson, with the commission, adding that the errors resulted in just as many bills that were too low as bills that were too high.

CMP has been trying to fix these defects since the company rolled out SmartCare, and, in some cases, the resolution of those defects caused people to believe they were being overbilled, Davidson explained.

For example, since electricity bills tend to go up during winter months, CMP has a “SimplePay” program that allows customers to pay the same amount every month based on their average electric bill. Davidson said one of the software defects under-calculated those monthly payments for some customers. When CMP fixed the defect, customers couldn’t understand why their bills suddenly increased.

Another defect resulted in some customers getting estimated bill reads that were too low. When the defect was fixed, it added the previous month’s underbilled amounts to new bills. Again, customers saw their bills suddenly increase and didn’t understand why.

“CMP did not do a very good job explaining it,” Davidson said.

Davidson also said that his office has been able to resolve many of the issues that customers have.

“There’s been very few cases where we could not figure out what was going on with the customer,” Davidson said.