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PUC Staff Recommends Audit of Emera, Citing High Power Outage Rate

Emera Maine is asking regulators to approve a more than 8 percent increase in the rates it charges electricity customers for providing transmission, distribution and billing services in the Bangor Hydro and Maine Public Service territories.

But now staff at Maine’s Public Utilities Commission say the state should audit the company’s management to investigate various deficiencies, including a significant rate of power outages.

In a filing this week, PUC staff cited three broad areas of concern about Emera: management of a computer system contract that ballooned from $17 million to $30 million, persistent billing and customer service problems and overall management of the company’s electricity transmission and distribution system.

“The staff felt in those three areas there were enough of a concern that they put forth a recommendation that we should consider doing a management audit,” says Harry Lanphear, the commission’s spokesman.

Lanphear says that Emera has consistently missed benchmarks for responding to consumer calls, correcting billing errors and filling service orders. And, he says, Emera customers in 2014 contended with an average of 2.8 outages over the course of a year. That was the worst record among 103 analyzed in a national survey by the Edison Electric Institute.

“So that’s what created the concern,” he says. “And that’s — to be clear on that — that’s after major storms are removed. We do live in Maine and there are many major storms that impact the grid and create outages. So that number excludes those major storms.”

The national analysis is confidential, although parties to Emera’s rate case do have access to it. PUC staff did find that Emera’s outage performance improved slightly in 2015, although still did not come close to standards set in a recent Central Maine Power rate case.

Emera Maine spokeswoman Allison Gray says the company strives to provide good value to its customers. She had no immediate comment on the question of the utility’s high outage rate.

“We’re open to any areas of improvement that may be identified by this external review,” she says.

Gray says the company is still evaluating the PUC staff recommendations and may respond to them in the course of the formal commission process.

The commission’s three-member board is expected to decide whether to order the management audit next week.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.