Time for Action on Outages, High Bills
The news is full of reports about skyrocketing electric bills across the country and numerous outages in the Northeast. Maine gets its share of both.
Something is wrong when the complaints occur as often and as loudly as they do now. Utilities and their friends have come up with ready responses that squarely place the blame on somebody else.
Customers are faulted for not recognizing their power consumption increases as they run electric heaters or oil burners. And frequent nor’easters get the blame for what seems to be an unusually high number of outages.
Of course, electric consumption increases in cold, dark winters. And, this year, the cost of fuel to run utility generation may also have increased. So it is not surprising that as usage increases, bills are higher. And some customers look only at the bottom line and ignore the number of kilowatt hours.
But this is not the most severe winter ever, so some huge increases seem to be caused by more than usage. CMP, for example, has removed the prior year’s monthly usage from the bill, making ready comparisons impossible. That deletion makes it more difficult to accept the explanation that it’s all a matter of usage.
One obvious culprit is the meter. Utilities have installed so-called “smart” meters, supposedly because they will allow customers to manage their usage better, obtaining greater efficiency and lower costs. While that promise mostly goes unfulfilled, it has worked well for utilities that can eliminate meter reader jobs.
During a major, recent nor’easter, smart meters turned out to be dumb. They could not highlight outage locations very well, nor did they provide good data to the central office, which would help it efficiently assign repair crews. Despite their shortcomings, a big part of the meter’s cost is recovered in a customer’s rates and will be for many years.
Given these known defects, it just might be possible that bills, way out of line with past experience, may be caused by defective meter information. To relieve customer worries while the cause is being investigated, the regulators should announce that their payment obligation will be limited to the previous year’s level.