Exorbitant power bills aren’t just a Maine thing

By Tux Turkel, Maine Sunday Telegram | Mar 12, 2018

LaAmber Laymon’s January power bill was $524.63, nearly what she pays for rent. An expecting mother with three children who recently lost her job, Laymon said she had to move in with a friend.

Janeen Rose said she’s facing a $700 electric bill from last December’s cold spell, despite keeping the thermostat at 62, running the propane fireplace and not turning on Christmas lights.

EADLINES

Sandra Diaz is angry the December bill for her small apartment doubled, to more than $200. She and hundreds of customers contacted a local television station to complain. An online petition asking state regulators for an investigation of the power company has attracted thousands of signatures.

The plight of these three electric customers sounds familiar in Maine, where pressure from angry residents and media reports prompted the Public Utilities Commission last month to open an initial examination into high electric bills for Central Maine Power customers.

But the three women aren’t CMP customers. They don’t even live in Maine.

Laymon lives in Shreveport, Louisiana, and is served by Southwestern Electric Power Co.

Rose lives in West Virginia; Diaz is in Virginia. Both are customers of Appalachian Power.

As Maine regulators search for the causes of skyrocketing electric bills in Maine, a review by the Maine Sunday Telegram of national media coverage shows that residents in at least 22 states – from Texas to Florida and Michigan to Massachusetts – also are up in arms over the bills they received for power used in December and January. Each of the 40 stories reviewed by the newspaper, published or broadcast between Jan. 5 and Feb. 20, have a common theme: Following days or weeks of record-cold temperatures, people were stunned by their electric bills. And they want answers.

In Maine, getting answers may be complicated.

It’s possible that the Maine PUC will uncover a systemic problem, such as glitches in CMP’s new billing software. CMP’s billing program was introduced last fall, just as a historic wind and rain storm knocked out power to 404,000 customers. The PUC wants to know whether CMP is able to identify billing errors related to its new system.

Malfunctioning smart meters also could provide an explanation. In Ontario, for instance, the Hydro One power company disconnected 36,000 digital smart meters in 2016, after chronic misreadings in rural areas. The Maine PUC is trying to determine if CMP’s wireless meters are accurately reading usage and communicating with the new billing system.

But the fact that customer complaints spiked across the eastern two-thirds of the United States during the same time period this winter adds a perplexing dimension to the Maine PUC’s inquiry. Unless the agency can identify widespread, technical problems, it could reach a conclusion that’s bound to be unpopular — that in most cases, the likely culprit was weather.

THE BIG CHILL

Mainers focused on their own struggles with below-zero temperatures may not have noticed the shivering in states where extreme cold is rare. The first week of January saw record-low, average temperatures across the South, including Charleston, South Carolina, 27 degrees; Tallahassee, Florida, 37 degrees; and New Orleans, 39 degrees. Electricity use surged. And a few weeks later, power customer complaints flooded in, as bills began arriving that were hundreds of dollars above average.

“This is a fairly common story, when you have these cold snaps,” said David Springe, executive director of the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates. “In most of these instances, it really is usage due to weather.”

Springe acknowledged that Maine’s situation is complicated by other factors that could have contributed to high January and February bills. A majority of CMP home customers who get their electricity supply through the state’s standard offer had an 18-percent increase in rates on Jan. 1, in the midst of the cold spell. Other customers, who had signed up with competitive electricity providers, were surprised to see even-higher rate increases for their energy supply.

But Springe, a former state consumer lawyer who represented utility customers in Kansas for 14 years, said his experience shows that problems with meters and billing systems are unusual.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “it was people who didn’t understand how much they were using. And people don’t like those answers.”

UNWELCOME SURPRISE

This scenario has been playing out in western Virginia, where overnight temperatures in the city of Roanoke that normally are near freezing fell to the single numbers and teens over a three-week period around the New Year.

Appalachian Power, a unit of a large, regional utility, American Electric Power, tried to alert customers. A news release on Jan. 3 warned that the frigid weather could push bills higher, especially for people who heat with electricity. Mild-climate, electric heat pumps are common in the region. The utility warned that supplemental – and costly – resistance heat automatically switches on when temperatures fall below 30 degrees.

But the resulting bills in January and February caught residents off guard and they vented with online comments.

“AEP is absolutely ridiculous,” wrote Sabrina Parker, who said her son’s monthly bill was $381.

Parker wrote that her parents have one television and one lamp, and they got a $600 bill. Her bill was almost $500, although her thermostat was set on 60 and she used her fireplace.

“And people wonder why so many homeless and drugs around this place, that’s exactly why!” she added. “Min. wage $8.75 an hour. Electric bill is all you pay! Should be ashamed!”

SURGING COMPLAINTS

Online petitions are circulating now in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky, calling for an investigation of AEP. They follow media reports of residents complaining about high January bills.

As in Maine, where WGME in Portland has been conducting its own investigation and asking customers to send their bills, TV stations in other states also are tapping into viewer frustration and advocating on their behalf. In Virginia, politicians reacted by considering bills to give utility regulators more oversight.

“This week,” said a Feb. 5 broadcast from WSLS in Roanoke, “lawmakers will debate new regulations for electric companies like American Electric Power. 10 News is working for you to follow up on your complaints about high electricity bills. Hundreds of people have voiced complaints on social media about their power bills, saying they’re not sure why they’re as high as they are, and 10 News heard from more than 1,500 people after airing a story last month.”

The power company, meanwhile, says it has tested meters and that its bills are accurate.

The Virginia State Corporation Commission, which oversees utilities, has yet to receive a formal complaint that would trigger an investigation, according to Andy Farmer, a spokesman for the regulatory agency. Asked to calculate the surge in complaints, Farmer found that the agency’s public utility division fielded 112 calls in January and 116 in February. That compares with 41 and 42 during those two months in 2017.

“We did have a very cold period in January, and that followed the holiday season, when usage typically is up,” Farmer said. “That’s what people were seeing, when the bills started coming in January.”

Since then, he noted, the winter has been warmer than normal and complaints have dropped off.

CONTRIBUTING FACTORS

February was warmer than average in Maine, as well, and it remains to be seen how many CMP bills that will be arriving this month will be double or triple the norm.

But that would still leave many customers seeking explanations about December and January.

Experts at the Maine Energy Marketers Association and Efficiency Maine say oil and gas furnaces and boilers, which have fans and pumps, wouldn’t use enough electricity on their own to account for huge spikes, regardless of how long they ran. They calculated increases from roughly $6 to $40 a month. Michael Stoddard, executive director of Efficiency Maine, noted that homes typically use more power during the holiday season – decorative lights, holiday baking, even having device-laden college kids home contributes to usage. Combining that with longer run times for heating systems could account for some increase.

“But if their bills went up by an amount more than that would explain,” Stoddard said, “then I think the use of resistance electric space heaters for supplemental heat would be the other logical explanation.”

Could that add up to a nearly $800 monthly bill at an unoccupied camp?

Linda Ruterbories doesn’t think so. She reached out to the Maine Sunday Telegram to share the $797.41 bill she got for February usage at her camp in China. She lives out of state and said she has just enough oil and electric heat on to keep pipes from freezing. She convinced CMP to test her meter, but that can’t happen until later this month.

“No one even lives there!” she wrote. “It’s so discouraging.”

LOOKING FOR ANSWERS

Sorting out the climatic swings from technical variables will be a challenge for the Maine PUC, according to David Littell, who served on the commission from 2010 to 2015, before becoming a national regulatory consultant.

“The Maine PUC should be commended for opening an investigation,” he said, “but it’s going to be difficult for them.”

The inquiry underway is being conducted as quickly as possible, and largely limits the staff to collecting data from CMP and compiling a report for the commissioners to review. But scrutinizing billing and metering systems is complicated and not always definitive, Littell said. He recalled the agency hiring an outside consultant in 2013 to study CMP’s smart meters. The audit took months and, in Littell’s view, left questions unanswered.

But an in-depth look won’t be taken unless the three PUC commissioners decide there’s enough evidence to open a full investigation. That would include introducing evidence, cross-examining witnesses and a holding a public hearing.

There’s pressure on the PUC to find some explanation, pressure that’s magnified by a climate of distrust.

Environmental advocates and some Democratic lawmakers have been tussling for years with the PUC over solar energy policy and what they see as a bias of the commissioners – all appointed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage – to side with CMP.

A bill in the Maine Legislature, L.D. 1700, would set up a task force to examine the cause of rising electric bills, a check on a review already underway at the PUC.

“There is increased public cynicism about all institutions,” Littell said. “It’s important for the public to feel the PUC is doing its job.”

But whatever conclusion the PUC reaches over high winter bills, customers already are organizing around the premise that they won’t be satisfied. An online group in Maine has formed a forum called CMP Ratepayers Unite. It had more than 1,200 members as of March 5.

Its mission statement: “This group is a forum to unite all the CMP customers who have seen a dramatic increase in their energy bill that cannot be (or will not be) explained by CMP. We demand further investigation into what is causing this increase and request a credit to our accounts.”

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