Editor’s note: The Journal continues its investigative series on the issues and players involved in the proposed merger of Public Service Company of New Mexico and Avangrid, a proposal that soon may resurface.
Extensive problems faced by Avangrid subsidiary Central Maine Power have generated a public backlash in that state, causing a ripple effect in regulatory proceedings here over Avangrid and Public Service Company of New Mexico’s proposed merger.
The Maine utility, CMP, has ranked at the bottom of industry consultant J.D. Power’s annual survey of residential customer satisfaction for several years, inspiring former Maine Rep. Seth Berry to testify in 2021 at the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission on behalf of merger opponent New Energy Economy. Berry accused Avangrid and its parent firm, Spanish company Iberdrola, S.A., of demonstrating a systemic pattern of “greed and mismanagement” in his state.
That testimony encouraged merger opponents here to label Avangrid the “worst of the worst” in the industry, not just in Maine, but throughout the Northeast, where the company operates utilities in four different states.
But former Maine regulator David Littell, who served on that state’s Public Utility Commission from 2010 to 2015, said Avangrid’s issues are fairly specific to Maine, reflecting unique problems there that began in 2017, nearly 10 years after Avangrid and Iberdrola acquired CMP in 2008.
By and large, CMP’s problems can be traced to a customer-service debacle created by a new billing software platform that CMP installed in 2017, Littell said. CMP deployed the platform to help modernize the grid with new technology, something that’s created issues for utilities in various states.
The system didn’t work well, causing billing problems for some 100,000 of CMP’s roughly 620,000 customers, leading to nearly $10 million in regulatory fines.
A CMP decision to outsource its customer service compounded the problems.
“There’s certainly no excuse — no substitution — for good management,” Littell told the Journal. “Top CMP executives took their eye off the ball and allowed mid-management to screw things up. But those types of problems can be avoided through effective regulation.”
Apart from fines, the billing debacle also led to a class-action lawsuit brought by about 600 ratepayers.
“For years CMP was held in pretty high regard by Maine customers, including when I was a commissioner at the PUC,” Littell said. “That started to break down with the billing and customer service issues … That became front-page news, and that’s the real issue here.”
CMP now faces a movement to replace it with a nonprofit, community-run utility.
“There is a strong public power movement here that’s led by this politician, Seth Berry, and he helped beat the merger in New Mexico,” Littell told the Journal. “He’s taken advantage of a wave of public disenchantment in Maine.”
In recent years, that movement has grown in response to public controversy over a joint transmission project by Avangrid and Canadian company Hydro Quebec that would cut through Maine forest areas to run hydroelectric power from Canada to Massachusetts.
The project, known as New England Clean Energy Connect, or NECEC, has stirred environmental concerns similar to other renewable energy transmission projects around the country, leading to a referendum in November 2021 that Maine voters approved to stop the project. The state Supreme Court later rejected the referendum as unenforceable since the project already has state and federal approvals, but it remains stalled for now under order by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
Public power advocates say NECEC is another example of Avangrid putting corporate profit over public interest. But others say it’s actually a regional issue that pits Maine voters, environmentalists and even rival energy companies against Avangrid, Hydro Quebec, and federal and state officials who support the project.
In Maine’s 2021 referendum campaign, NextEra Energy, Vistra Energy and Calpine — three Avangrid competitors that operate natural gas and nuclear plants in the area — spent a combined $27 million to influence voters against NECEC, according to a story last year in the New York Times.
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