Commentary

Halsey Frank: Power corrodes trust, absolutely

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Central Maine Power provides electricity about 80% of residential customers in Maine, including my house. Factors that influence electricity consumption include the size of a home, where it is located and what it is made of (which tend to affect the amount of electricity used to heat and cool), the number of occupants, the number and type of electric appliances and their usage. Heating and cooling are not factors for my house because we heat with oil, and we don’t have AC.

We have CMP’s SimplePay Plan. It is supposed to spread the cost of our electricity usage, which fluctuates throughout the year according to the season, so that the monthly payments are equal.

When those payments increased by 50% about ten years ago, I explored the alternatives but chose not to make use of them because they seemed more complicated and expensive.

When my daughter left for college in 2015, and again when my son left for college in 2017, I expected my bill to decrease. It didn’t.

In 2017, CMP’s long-heralded and much delayed smart meters were supposed to be more accurate and save money. Not for us.

In 2019, after the botched rollout of CMP’s new billing system, I observed our monthly bill fluctuating wildly within a range of $114. I wrote the Attorney General’s Office, the Public Utilities Commission, and the Public Advocate that I had no faith that our bill bore any relationship to our actual usage.

The PUC is supposed to regulate electric utilities to ensure that Maine citizens have access to safe and reliable service at reasonable rates. It is supposed to select providers of standard offer residential electric service based on the bid that offers the lowest price, the lowest cost overall, and price stability. It is supposed to provide information, monitor service for reliability, and respond to complaints. The Attorney General is supposed to assist consumers and advocate on their behalf. The Public Advocate is supposed to represent the public before the PUC with respect to the reasonableness of rates.

I got neither relief nor a satisfactory explanation from any of them.

In an effort to at least better understand the situation, I started getting weekly usage alerts.

Last November 26th, I got an email alerting me that our usage had spiked to 80 kilowatt hours per day from November 23rd through 25th which was much higher than our recent average usage of 48 kilowatt hours per day. (In 2020, the national average was about 30 kilowatt hours per day. Maine’s average was about 20.)

I was dismayed. We had been away for Thanksgiving. No one had been in the house. The only difference in usage should have been a decrease.

I called the customer service line. A woman there looked at our usage for those dates on her computer. She told me that she observed our usage fluctuating up and down during those days. I asked her how that could be if no one was in the house. She couldn’t explain.

She observed that our daily usage declined after the 25th but spiked again on the 29th. That was remarkable. We were back in the house on the 26th, 27th and 28th but not on the 29th when we were again away, this time visiting my mother after Thanksgiving. The CMP woman suggested using CMP’s online tools to monitor my usage, that I schedule a breaker test and a technician visit to troubleshoot my meter.

It was pretty unsatisfying.

I again explored the alternatives and spoke with a representative of one of the 20 competitive residential power suppliers CMP carries, Ambit Energy, whose price on the Public Advocate’s website seemed significantly lower. However, after discussing the monthly, yearly, and bi-annual options, as well as the option of early termination to take advantage of lower winter rates without penalty, I again concluded that switching wasn’t worth it.

On January 27th, I received a letter from CMP’s president informing me that I would be experiencing a “sizeable increase in the cost of the Standard Offer Provider supply cost” of my electricity from $0.064494 to $$0.118161 a kilowatt hour. That’s an 83.21% increase. And Maine’s cost of electricity is already above average.

The president pointed out that CMP does not supply electricity and does not control the cost of supply. It wasn’t much consolation. The increase still felt vindictive coming after CMP lost a court case and referendum regarding the power transmission corridor it was trying to build between Canada and Massachusetts through Maine.

According to the Public Advocate, the price of the supply portion of our electric bill is set by the “forces of competition.” But it is difficult for those forces to work in a market as complicated as that for electricity. There are a lot of considerations for a customer to take into account. It appears that suppliers’ rates aren’t very competitive and their share of the market for supply isn’t very significant (about 100,000 residential customers in 2019 out of a total of about 700,000).

The governor’s accountability bill is a substitute for the incentives that market competition imposes. It requires quarterly performance reports with regard to metrics such as reliability, the accuracy of bills, and customer satisfaction. It authorizes the PUC to penalize failures to meet minimum standards. In the event of persistent failures, the bill authorizes a forced sale to a bidder who represents a net benefit which would cost taxpayers billions.

But I thought that was what the PUC, the attorney general and the public advocate were supposed to do: hold CMP accountable. I am reluctant to add another layer of government when existing layers have failed. At this point, I favor the referendum for a state takeover and a return to a traditional public utility. It has got to be better than the lousy and expensive service we have been getting.

About Halsey Frank

Halsey Frank was born and raised in and around New York City and nearby Englewood, NJ. He graduated from the Dwight Englewood School, Wesleyan University and the Boston University School of Law. After law school, Halsey worked for the Department of Justice for 34 years, first as a civil litigator and later as a criminal prosecutor and civil attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. In 1999, Halsey moved to Maine where he worked as a civil attorney and criminal prosecutor in the U.S Attorney’s Office until 2017, when he was nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate to be Maine’s U.S. Attorney, the chief federal law enforcement officer for the District of Maine. Halsey retired from the Department of Justice in February 2021. Prior to becoming a U.S. Attorney, Halsey was active in local affairs, including the Portland Republican City Committee, the Friends of Portland Parks, the Friends of the Portland Public Library and the Maine Leadership Institute. He previously authored a column entitled “Short Relief” that appeared in The Forecaster regional newspaper. His views are his own.

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