A group of Central Maine Power Co. customers asked state regulators Monday to stop electric utilities from disconnecting homes during the pandemic, citing surging coronavirus numbers and the flagging economy.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, in March the Maine Public Utilities Commission instituted a moratorium on electric utilities disconnecting residential customers or sending disconnection notices for a lack of payment. But in September, the commission wound down the moratorium, and allowed disconnections and disconnection notices to resume on Nov. 1.
But circumstances have changed dramatically since the moratorium lifted, the customers argued in a complaint filed with the commission. Noting that the number of new daily COVID-19 cases in the state was less than 30 when the commission decided to lift the moratorium — versus 339 new cases on Monday — the 10 complainants argued it is “unreasonable” for electric utilities to send disconnection notices or disconnect residential customers “until the worst of the pandemic” is over.
“Never before has Maine suffered as it is suffering today,” Sumner Lipman, an attorney for the complainants, said in a statement. “The enclosed petitioners are people who have stood up and are asking the PUC to do what is appropriate.”
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Catharine Hartnett, a spokesperson for CMP, said “CMP has resumed normal collections activities at the direction of the [Maine Public Utilities Commission} using communications that have been reviewed by both [the commission] and the Office of the Public Advocate.”
“The intent of the disconnection notices is to encourage customers who are behind on their accounts to contact us to learn about sources of assistance in paying bills and to discuss an affordable payment arrangement,” Hartnett said, adding that the company has not disconnected any residential customers this winter.
The commission could not yet comment on the complaint. But commission spokesperson Harry Lanphear said the “commission has not received any request for customers to be disconnected by CMP for the last two years.” Lanphear also added that no electric or gas utilities had submitted requests to disconnect customers this winter.
Still, the state has reimposed many of the same restrictions that were used to justify the original moratorium, the complaint argued.
“Once again all but essential businesses are closed or severely restricted,” the complaint states. “Financial aid provided in the spring and summer months has dried up. Maine residents are having increasing difficulty in paying their bills.”
While the pandemic moratorium ended on Nov. 1, Maine electric utilities are subject to an annual winter disconnection period running from Nov. 15 to April 15. During that period, utilities cannot disconnect residential customers without approval from the commission.
While that period provides some protection for ratepayers during the winter months, it doesn’t stop CMP or other utilities from sending disconnection notices or attempting to collect past due balances under the threat of disconnection.
Last month, a group of ratepayers filed suit in state court alleging that the disconnection notices CMP sent to customers were fraudulent because they implied the company had already received the permission of the commission to disconnect the customers who received the notices.
In December, a judge dismissed most of the ratepayers’ allegations in the suit, citing a lack of financial harm, but allowed the suit to continue over the question of whether the company had engaged in “intentional infliction of emotional distress.”
CMP has gotten in trouble over the language it used in disconnect notices before. In August, regulators fined the electric utility $500,000 for distributing disconnection notices the previous winter that misled customers into believing CMP could disconnect power without first getting approval from the commission.
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And in January, the commission levied a $10 million penalty — its largest ever — against CMP for poor service.
The Maine Public Advocate’s Office has not yet fully reviewed the complaint filed Monday, but there may be collection practices “that should be evaluated in light of the ongoing pandemic,” said Deputy Public Advocate Andrew Landry.
“More importantly, it is essential that the PUC consider reestablishing the emergency moratorium starting when the Winter Disconnection Period ends,” Landry added.
Other New England states have implemented rules against disconnections, the complaint noted. Massachusetts extended its moratorium until April. In October, Vermont implemented a six-month ban on residential disconnections.
Some of the complainants have received disconnection notices threatening disconnection before the end of the year, the complaint said, while others “fear that CMP will send them disconnection notices and disconnect their electric service in the wintertime and during the pandemic if they are unable to maintain payments.”
The complaint comes amid a separate legal fight between a group of CMP ratepayers and the utility that began after ratepayers alleged a rollout of a new billing platform in late 2017 produced inaccurate billing. An independent audit and the commission found the system had no “systemic” problems with measuring customer usage, but the company has been working to resolve a series of software defects that produced inaccurate bills.
With 10 consumers signing onto the complaint, it means there are enough for regulators to open an investigation. Many said they need electricity to do their jobs and educate their children remotely.
Complainant Jennifer Gamage is working from home in Dixmont, and her children are attending school remotely, the complaint said. She has been unable to pay her CMP bill “on a current basis,” according to the complaint, and received a notice from CMP on Nov. 10 that threatened to disconnect her electricity “with permission of the Maine PUC.”
“Disconnection would cause her business to close and would cut her children off from school,” the complaint said.