Last October, nearly 1,000 utilities professionals from 100 companies visited the Grand Hyatt Hotel in San Antonio, Texas for a three-day software conference.
Donna McNally, an experienced information technology director at Central Maine Power Co., was there to introduce her company's new customer billing system. In a presentation, she told the audience how CMP's new software, introduced exactly one year earlier, increased billing accuracy and improved the customer experience.
More than 100,000 customers received inaccurate and for many enormously expensive utility bills. Or that many private and commercial electrical customers have received no bills at all ̵
The presentation in Texas was not the first time nor was it the last time that CMP misrepresented the customer service disaster that destroyed the reputation of Maine's largest utility. At the end of March this year, CMP's chief executive told the Maine Public Utilities Commission that the billing issues were largely resolved. But even now, customers complain to the agency about unexplained high bills and their continuing disappointment that they have been trying to get answers from CMP.
A Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram investigation revealed that officials from Central Maine Power and its parent company have cut corners, circumvent proven industry practices, and fail to adequately test a new, error-prone accounting system that was introduced in the fall of 2017 ,
The collapse of the $ 56 million SmartCare billing system, a paradigm, reflects a pattern of corporate malpractice and unmet customer promise for much of this decade.
Examination of documents, statements, e-mails, and interviews by the newspaper revealed:
• Managers failed critical tests and rushed through others who had alerted officials to the system was not ready yet.
• The origins of the fiasco date back to 2010, when the company installed a smart meter system that was sponsored by taxpayers and interest rate payers, promising customer savings. However, nine years later, the biggest savings came to the company after it cleared 85 counters.
• A poorly timed buyout of corporate employees and a reduction in customer service positions left CMP understaffed at crucial times.
• The senior management of Avangrid, CMP's domestic parent, focused on directing a billion-dollar power-line project yet to be approved by Maine and downplaying issues with the problematic billing system.
• The company has also downplayed the scope of the problem in comments to the Public Utilities Commission, the regulator that regulates CMP. Equity analysts; and the public.
As PUC investigations continue, tensions will be high next month when the Agency holds three public hearings. They are scheduled for July 16, 18 and 22 in Portland, Farmington and Hallowell.
CMP defends the introduction of SmartCare. It underlines that the investigations are still ongoing and that it is too early to draw conclusions.
QUESTIONS, NO ANSWERS
For customers, the bad news started in the fall of 2017, after the company switched from one aging to data management system.
Within a few days, customers received incorrect invoices. Soon, 97,000 of the company's approximately 620,000 customers received invoices that were at least 50 percent higher than in the same period last year (19459006). Many private and commercial interest payers received no bills at all – and were shocked when the final balance was higher than they could afford.
A violent storm on October 30, the same day as the transition to the new billing system, led to record power outages, followed by a brutal cold spell in early winter, with a double-digit increase in electricity prices. These events merged to aggravate the problems and confuse the efforts to find the cause of the high bills. Overall, PUC found 59 different types of billing errors affecting more than 100,000 customers.
The company was quick to blame that the cold weather and energy supply rate were increasing, not the new computer system. CMP also blamed its customers, many of whom took desperate measures to cut their electricity bills after receiving unconvincing explanations from the utility company.
A review of the nearly 500 complaints to the PUC painted an embarrassing picture of how the utility company handled customer requests.
CMP first told angry customers that it was likely a weather error or a broken device or outdated electrical wiring in the house. But if a client could refute those explanations, the excuses became more creative, ranging from electrical theft to excessive showers to teenagers dependent on video games.
"They gave me all this song and dance, started with my gadgets and then got weirder and weird," said Rob DuPaul, a Sanford contractor, who was huge in the monthly bill of his house Tips speaks, including a monthly fee of $ 1,500.
"They asked me if I started running a business outside my home, or if someone was stealing electricity," DuPaul said. "My answers were all no, no, no. I think they just wanted me to give up and pay, but I can not. I should not have to go broke to pay for something that is not right. "
Faced with unusually high bills, some frustrated CMP customers took drastic measures, such as summer, living in a small motorhome, or not lighting their Christmas tree or showering with a garden hose.
Shanon Dixon, 54, of Waterville, made extreme strides after her monthly electricity bill more than doubled in early 2018 to $ 300 a month. The family is now lighting their home with solar lamps. They closed their pool. They do not flush the toilet after they urinate and stop using the shower.
"The lights, a state park pass instead of the pool, I'll do those things even if they figure out what's going on with our bills," Dixon said. "Flushing the toilet and showering the girls in the Boys & Girls Club when they have a function is more than what we should do."
The nightmare continues for many Mainers.
A $ 400,000 audit could not definitely answer these questions. It criticized the company's management, but concluded that the new billing and metering system was not to blame.
This statement did not satisfy thousands of CMP customers. Nearly 8,000 have joined a Facebook opposition group, CMP Ratepayers Unite.
More than 600 customers have joined a lawsuit seeking class-action status. A bill that confiscates CMP's assets and transforms the company into a consumer business will be reviewed by PUC employees in the next legislative term.
According to the public, CMP is struggling to restore its reputation while it still exists
"We are probably the most suspicious company at the moment," said CEO Doug Herling in an interview in August 2018.
He gave the social Media, reporting, suspicion of foreign ownership of CMP and opposition to corporate initiatives blamed the main reasons for this mistrust.
"CMP should be torn upside down as fast as possible," says Michael Harvey of Winthrop. "I lost all faith in her. I get higher bills as a mortgage. "
The 39-year-old owner of a small-scale cleaning company claims to have received $ 1,400 in monthly bills to power his 1,100-square-meter house, and his April bill was $ 900.  Since the Maine Public Utilities Commission's investigation is nearing the eighth month, the total number of customers affected by fake invoices remains unclear, with 100,832 flawed customer bills from November 2017 through April 2019, according to CMP.
However, the number is likely to be higher, with the 97,000 customers who received very high bills in early 2018 not compared to the inaccurate bills table, and the accounts that had not been billed for months did not turn out to be huge Balance Most of the bad bills came in the first six months after launch.
SMART METERS, OR NOT
CMP's billing issues actually began a decade ago when it introduced another technology upgrade between 2010 – the launch of 625,000 Digital Smart Counters and 2012.
With the support of a US $ 96 million federal grant, CMP exchanged old analog counters for new digital models. It promised customers that the technology would eventually enable them to monitor the power consumption in their homes in real time and thus lower their monthly bills, a modern accounting system. CMP's previous accounting system was outdated until the 1970s.
Without this system, customers' ability to interact with their smart meters to lower their bills has been delayed. Documents show that CMP's project managers missed dates for years before introducing the new billing system.
Nearly a decade later, this potential has largely been underutilized, largely because a competitive electricity market, which had been expected for residential customers, has failed development in Maine.
Smart meters have made some savings, but most of them went to the company first and foremost. CMP was able to drive 2 million miles a year. In addition, 85 employees were dismissed, who read the meters, which represents a saving of about 8 million USD.
"PEOPLE WANT TO ANSWER"
When inaccurate bills popped up in the fall of 2017, some customers blamed the smart meters. While some shortcomings have been identified, the focus of government regulators and consumer advocates is now focusing on the actual billing system.
Corporate officials insist that they have followed industry best practices when introducing SmartCare. At the beginning of May McNally testified at the PUC that CMP had carried out the project "carefully, methodically and effectively".
The Company also denies key evidence of test deficiencies consultant collected by a PUC-appointed auditor, the Liberty Consulting Group, a utilities company.
"The analysis of CMP's IT project management for SmartCare was not part of the Liberty consulting team's investigation," said CMP spokeswoman Catharine Hartnett.
But last week, Liberty Consulting stuck to its conclusions and said McNally's testimony inaccurately portrayed his review. Contrary to McNally's claim, Liberty conducted a detailed assessment of the SmartCare rollout by conducting interviews with CMP managers and examining thousands of pages of documents. The CMP and Avangrid executives cut corners and did not properly test the new billing system endeavored to meet a long deadline.
The Liberty audit found that the company skipped 13 weeks of testing – a burden denied by CMP – and did not fix about 100 system failures until October 29, the night before the launch.
The answer to the question of whether CMP acted properly is clear.
"It's hard to believe that all these protocols have been followed," said Barry Hobbins, Maine's public attorney, whose representative office runs its own $ 250,000 probe.
"It's just confusing to me that they've followed all these practices and procedures. We would not have had this lengthy, procedural debate if it had acted prudently.
He criticizes the PUC for not trying more aggressively to uncover the root causes in a way that satisfies the customers.
"People want answers," said Hobbins. "That's the problem, we did not have any answers, and that's very frustrating."
Sara Burns, CMP's former president and CEO, is a senior executive who may have some insight into pre-launch issues Retirement, as customer complaints increased despite remaining on the Avangrid board.
Called in early June, Burns said she would rather not answer questions because she is no longer the boss of CMP.
"It puts me in a very uncomfortable position, "she said." I do not think it's the right one. "
START PROMISE, MULTIPLE DELAYS, THEN FINAL SPEED
CMP opted for the new one SAP's accounting system, a German global software company providing products and services to the entire utilities industry, was an SAP-related group that organized the Texas conference CMP's panacious parent company, Iberdrola USA, and its affiliates already ran a number of SAP-based applications, and an experienced support team was located at the CMP headquarters in Augusta.
Company officials filed their first application for PUC approval in February 2015 Senior executives told regulators that it would take 19 to 22 months after PUC approval for the new billing system to be online. Their destination was June 2017.
But they missed the mark. Multiple times.
When the system actually started – despite assurances that the project was on track – the company faced a $ 1.5 million fine for excessive delays from the PUC.
The pressure of companies to press the button began to grow.
What began as a slow, methodical approach to a complex project eventually evolved into a rush to the finish line.
Things seemed to be going well by January 2017. A quarterly report by CMP Vice President Eric Stinneford also pointed out that the project had to be carried out both on schedule and delayed. It was feared that the billing system would be introduced in the summer of 2017 when a rate hike comes into effect.
"Status Summary: … Overall, the project is on schedule and is expected to be completed within budget."
And the same document states, "In light of this scheduling conflict [with the rate hike] and its undesirable effects, the company found that the best course of action is to … postpone the project … "
Conflict over moving some data from old to new Due to the new system, the deadline had to be postponed from June to August. According to the company, several ongoing or scheduled tests have been completed.
But even this assessment turned out to be optimistic.
Since the beginning of 2017, CMP has delayed the launch of SmartCare by at least three more times. From June or July 2017 until August and then until a certain date, September 5, 2017.
On May 3, 2017, the PUC Staff and managers from CMP, Avangrid and the Office of Public Advocate met to review progress.
McNally cited several reasons for the delay and rising costs. One was hardware. Another was work. More people worked longer than expected.
But the project, she said, is now on its critical path, jargon for the technical steps needed to complete a project. She then outlined the various test cycles, the "dress rehearsal" for a process that would take three weeks.
Chuck Cohen, the PUC auditor, then asked McNally, "Well, what could go wrong in the meantime …"  McNally replied, "I do not think we know. I do not want to be frivolous. I mean, as you can imagine, there are many moving parts. "
One of the biggest moving parts, McNally told the PUC, was the training, which meant that both CMP staff and up to 30 external partners and vendors in different locations and time zones had to work together on the new system.
"There must be several months of training for the system," said McNally
Integration testing is complicated, McNally explained, and CMP has special scenarios for call centers to test complete business transactions such as putting a customer in and out Employees developed 47 scenarios in one test cycle, which, according to CMP, involved 1,448 individual tasks.
Later she added, "You know, our top priority is that we want to get it right."
PRESSURE TO LAUNCH
The completion of such a complex project is a finely tuned choreography of disparate systems, schedules, software, data, hardware, people, and, in this case providers around the world. And test it, of course. With increasing financial sanctions and growing corporate pressure, CMP no longer had time to complete the tests and start the system.
"The approach has been changed from a cautious approach to ensuring the completion of planned testing into a just-allowed test that will fit into the ever shorter time before the end of October 2017 and allow for the remaining budget," said the Liberty audit.
The top executives focused very much on the launch date. As summer approaches, executives set another ultimate goal: October 30, 2017.
According to PUC Project Manager McNally, on October 20 and October 20, the CMP Steering Committee reviewed the "go-live "Readiness scorecards and checklists. 27. She said that she was satisfied that the project was on track. It was approved to switch to go-live at the last session.
However, according to a senior executive who attended former Chief Executive Officer Burns at CMP boardroom meetings, the group felt pressure from senior executives at Iberdrola to finish testing and launching the new billing system. They worried about further financial sanctions at the PUC.
"Most of the discussion was on the timeline," said the former employee. "I think that was because the company had requested so many renewals from the Commission."
The executive asked not to be identified because the person is still in the industry and fears retaliation.
Hurry up and do it right
But executives at the Parent company Iberdrola another concern: Scottish Power.
Scottish Power is an Iberdrola subsidiary that introduced a new IT system in 2014, similar to the CMP-acquired SAP system. This has resulted in more complaints than ever before from a UK utility, customers who did not receive invoices, received incorrect invoices or were charged for late payments.
"There was pressure from Iberdrola to not repeat CMP The mess of Scottish Power," said the former managing director. "There was a lot of talk in meetings. Representatives of Iberdrola told the top managers of CMP and Avangrid, "Do not let this happen again."
But it happened.
Unlike CMP, whose officials continue to dispute this Scottish Power executives admitted they had mistreated their project and apologized to customers:
"It does we are sorry. It's our fault and that's why we're committed to ensuring that no customer is spared our mistakes, "wrote Neil Clitheroe, CEO of Scottish Power, in a public statement.
In April 2018, CMP finally apologized for responding to customer complaints, but took no responsibility for the underlying causes of the problem.
At the Texas conference, McNally presented a slide that announced the company's top customer service rating for JD Power, the global marketing company, as the New England utility was the 12th out of 17 among its size-class providers.
Hartnett, the CMP spokeswoman, endeavored to teach McNally's Texas presentation titled "Year of Progress: Exploring Strategy, Results and Lesson …" The talk, she said, should be a project management case study in which one Set of goals rather than actual achievements.
30 to 17 WEEK TEST
The rush to do it, and the warning to do it right, left some members of the launch team frustrated. Among them are two key managers who were concerned about the launch date on October 30 and who felt the project was flooded with inadequate testing, the same former manager told Portland Press Herald .
"I think the company I felt they had so many delays that they had to adhere to this deadline," said the former employee The audit was conducted for the PUC.
According to Liberty, executives skipped several tests in the spring and summer to detect and fix pre-launch problems. In some cases, they simply skipped important steps to meet the budget and reached the launch date of 30 October.
For example, the project managers had originally scheduled 30 weeks of testing. They lasted only 17 weeks, with some test phases overlapping.
This departure from best practices has been described in detail by Liberty. Several issues were identified that led to the launch:
"CMP management held on to a planned go-live date of October 30, 2017 by compressing scheduled schedules and overlapping critical testing phases. The approach changed from a cautious approach to ensuring the completion of planned testing to an approach that only allowed those tests that fit into the still compressed time before the end of October 2017 and allowed the remaining budget. "
Several examples have been highlighted in Liberty's report, including the following: Three dress rehearsals should be conducted one month prior to launch. Only one took place two weeks before the changeover.
Liberty also expressed the belief that one of the tests chosen by CMP / Avangrid did not meet industry best practices. It was pointed out that even this test called "Parallel Bill Testing" was not fully completed. Essentially, the test performs the old system against the new one.
"CMP both used an approach that did not test all functions, and then there was no time to run more tests of the selected kind," the audit said. 19659002] CMP has questioned the central conclusions of Liberty. In their testimonial from last month, McNally said that the Liberty audit was designed to focus on the accuracy of meters and billing, and that the review of SmartCare was brief and ignored tens of thousands of documentation pages. For example, McNally said that testing, which was scheduled for 38 weeks, actually took 79 weeks because certain test cycles overlapped.
Whether CMP had enough workers and the right workers for the job is also controversial.
Managers juggled the work of 32 vendors around the world. This added a level of complexity that contributed to delays and the need to schedule tests later than originally planned.
Liberty noted, "The SmartCare project involved many employees working in a mix of internal and external resources in geographical areas (Augusta, New York, Connecticut, Spain, India and Portugal). The number of groups and locations, as well as their geographical distribution, exceeds the standard for this type of project and makes it difficult to integrate and develop the work. "
CMP has attempted to solve this problem by relocating important information technologies, software and Allied team members until Augusta. However, as the project duration slipped, CMP had to call back 10 employees who had made buyouts. They had a good knowledge of the old and the new billing system.
CMP managers were also asked to get all vendors to develop and deliver their products and services according to changing schedules. This contributed to the decisions to delay the project.
McNally confirmed, however, that the staffing was adequate and that the occupation of six geographical areas was actually beneficial as it extended the working day across time zones.
WER HAT DIE ENTSCHEIDUNG ZUM START GESTELLT?
Im Zentrum der Untersuchung stehen die Fragen, wer den Startschuss für das System am Oktober gegeben hat. 30 und ob diese Entscheidung gerechtfertigt war.
Der Auditbericht identifiziert ein Abnahmeprotokoll für die Inbetriebnahme mit SAP Networks. Es erforderte Eingaben des Projektteams und seines Lenkungsausschusses.
Ob die Regulierungsbehörden feststellen, dass das CMP-Management bei der Einführung des Systems angemessen gehandelt hat, entscheidet darüber, ob Kunden oder Aktionäre die finanziellen Konsequenzen tragen. Wenn die PUC feststellt, dass CMP umsichtig gehandelt hat und keinen „sicheren, angemessenen und angemessenen Versorgungsservice“ bietet, können betroffene Kunden Rückerstattungen erhalten. Die Agentur könnte auch eine Geldstrafe verhängen oder die Unternehmensgewinne senken.
Liberty entdeckte in den Tagen vor dem Start verschiedene Probleme.
CMPs Bericht über den Status der Abnahme stellte fest, dass keine offenen Mängel als kritisch oder hoch eingestuft wurden. Es gab eine Reihe von mittelgroßen Fehlern, aber sie hatten Abhilfemaßnahmen vereinbart. Unter Verwendung der CMP-eigenen Daten gelangte Liberty jedoch zu einem anderen Ergebnis: Es stellte fest, dass am Tag vor der Inbetriebnahme ungefähr 35 hochrangige und 100 mittelrangige Fehler identifiziert worden waren. Die Wirtschaftsprüfer konnten die genaue Anzahl jedoch zum Go-Live-Datum am 30. Oktober nicht ermitteln.
Das Liberty-Audit stellte auch Verwirrung und Diskrepanzen zwischen drei Statusberichten fest, die CMP zur Verfolgung des Projektfortschritts verwendete.
„Management Die Schwere der vor dem Start des CIS (Customer Information System) aufgetretenen Mängel wurde minimiert oder nicht erkannt. Widersprüchliche Informationen in Statusberichten, Bereitschaftsberichten und der Hauptliste der Mängel zeigen, dass die Größe der vorhandenen Probleme nicht erkannt wurde. “
Ebenso beunruhigend war die Prüfung, dass der Statusbericht von CMP keine verschiedenen Vorsichtsmaßnahmen und Warnungen enthielt identifiziert von einem von CMP beauftragten Experten, der als Systemintegrator bezeichnet wird. Die Firma Deloitte Consulting ist eine globale Verwaltungsgesellschaft, die beim Codieren und Testen der Technologie geholfen hat.
McNally hat die Einschätzung von Liberty angefochten. Sie sagte aus, dass der Lenkungsausschuss wenige Tage vor dem Go-Live keine Probleme festgestellt habe.
Sie sagte, dass alle Schlüsselindikatoren im Go-Live-Dashboard grün seien. Sie sagte, eine Checkliste für die Bereitschaft wurde dem Lenkungsausschuss zur Genehmigung vorgelegt und innerhalb von Minuten dokumentiert. Diese Protokolle sind jedoch nicht in den öffentlich zugänglichen Beweisen enthalten.
Es kommt häufig vor, dass Probleme nach dem Wechsel des Datenverwaltungssystems auftreten. Nach Einschätzung von Liberty hatte CMP jedoch nicht genügend Zeit und Ressourcen aufgewendet, um Mängel mit einem von der Branche als Post-Go-Live-Plan bezeichneten Plan zu beheben.
Der unzureichende Post-Go-Live-Plan zeigte sich im Kundendienstbereich, wo Die Mitarbeiter waren mit Kundenbeschwerden überfordert.
Aufgrund der Kostensenkung des Unternehmens waren zu wenig Mitarbeiter im Kundendienst beschäftigt, um die Flut von Anrufen zu bewältigen. Bei der PUC für Juni 2018 eingereichte Informationen zeigen 11 freiwillige Kündigungen und 18 Pensionierungen, aber nur eine Neueinstellung. Overall, CMP’s total full-time head count went from 913 in 2013 to 808 last June.
CMP is beefing up the customer service ranks again, with 28 hires planned or in progress. It plans to add 75 new workers by June 2020, documents show.
In recent months, CMP and Avangrid have attempted to move on. Findings in the Liberty audit that suggested the smart meters are, overall, producing accurate bills gave the utility some degree of comfort.
On April 30, CMP’s president and chief executive, Doug Herling, sent a letter to the Maine PUC, saying the backlog of delayed bills is completely cleared.
Customer complaints still come in to the PUC’s consumer division, but the volume has tapered to what Herling described as a “steady state.”
But even now, as summer approaches, problems remain. A new wave of 19 complaints filed at the PUC between June 1-17 from disgruntled customers indicates that many people are still struggling with bills they can’t explain and questions they can’t get answered.
Regulators are sure to hear from such customers next month at the upcoming public hearings.
CMP would like to put the billing problems behind it because the company has another pressing concern: Gaining approvals for a $1 billion transmission line called New England Clean Energy Connect that would run through western Maine to supply Canadian hydropower to Massachusetts.
“The power line project was all-consuming,” said the former executive, who took part in CMP department head meetings. “There was a lack of management attention to billing. But you’re going to make millions each year (from building the project), and the billing system doesn’t make you that kind of money.”
This sense is borne out in earnings calls with analysts who follow Avangrid’s publicly traded stock. During one call last winter to review fourth-quarter earnings, Avangrid’s executives highlighted progress on the power line project and an ongoing rate case. They downplayed the billing problem and the PUC’s investigation, following an exchange with Julien Patrick Dumoulin-Smith, an analyst with Bank of America, Merrill Lynch.
To close off the discussion, Douglas K. Stuver, Avangrid’s senior vice president and chief financial officer, conveyed the impression that inaccurate billing was a non-issue:
“I mean, our focus, Julien, in Maine is strictly on a couple of things right now. So one, obviously, is serving the company, meeting the customer expectations … It’s on getting the approvals for NECEC, and it’s on getting through the rate case and the outstanding review of the billing system and getting customers some assurance that they are effective and accurate in terms of the bills that are being produced, which has been shown now by two different audits.”
“But to be very frank, there are still people that don’t believe that, and so, as Jim said, (James P. Torgerson, Avangrid’s CEO) the commission is going to investigate it further and do an audit of the audit, if you would, to just make completely sure that the system is operating as designed.”
But customers say they can’t afford to wait any longer. They live in fear as their contested, overdue bills continue to mount and face embarrassing, aggressive collection calls and notices urging them to agree to onerous repayment plans to avoid disconnection.
Last year, Michelle Knight of Old Orchard Beach got five electricity bills, all of which were ridiculously high, and three disconnect notices in the month before Christmas. She said she has lost all trust in the utility and would like to sue them for theft and mental anguish.
“I am a loyal, paying customer but I am being treated as trash,” said Knight in her complaint to the PUC. “This has gone on far too long and if something is not done, it will destroy many family budgets and force them to decide whether to pay the mortgage or the electric bill. We can’t take this anymore.”
Staff Writer Penelope Overton contributed to this article.