It was a big evening for “The Nite Show,” Maine’s locally produced version of a late-night, network talk show. Returning to Husson University’s Gracie Theatre in Bangor on Oct. 3 for the first time since the pandemic struck in March, host Danny Cashman welcomed a special guest: David Flanagan. CMP’s David Flanagan on “The Nite Show” with Danny Cashman: “The first thing I want to say is, we’re on the comeback trail.”
And when Cashman politely inquired why Maine’s largest utility was so disliked by its customers, Flanagan offered a mea culpa of sorts. He summarized how a trouble-plagued new metering system, outages following a turbulent autumn storm and a frigid winter had combined to trigger high bills and a ratepayer rebellion. The company didn’t handle it well, he acknowledged.
But before he answered, Flanagan delivered a remark that has become his slogan: “The first thing I want to say is, we’re on the comeback trail.”With that statement, he was speaking not just to CMP customers, but to a statewide audience.
Flanagan knows CMP’s adversaries are pursuing a citizens’ referendum and legislative bills aimed at replacing CMP and Versant Power, which serves most of northern and eastern Maine, with a statewide, consumer-owned power company. He can see how they vilify CMP, and its Spanish owners at Iberdrola, for being unresponsive and distant.
But here was Flanagan, an old Bangor boy, reminiscing on television about growing up in the city. Viewers didn’t see a Harvard- and Boston College-educated lawyer who has worked in Maine government, business and education since the 197os and knows everybody. And they didn’t see the face of an uncaring, overseas corporation. Here was a competent and friendly uncle, a fellow Mainer, telling his neighbors he has it under control. Again.
Whether Flanagan is successful in using his skills and contacts to defuse the consumer power movement and usher in a new era of customer calm remains to be seen. But nine months into his assignment, there’s some evidence that he is making process.
One telling metric: Customer complaints to the Maine Public Utilities Commission for the first eight months of 2020 were roughly one-third of what they were for the same period in 2019.
That could change overnight. On the last day of September, 140,000 customers lost power when a fast-moving storm pushed winds above 50 miles per hour, toppling trees. Most power was restored quickly, but some customers grumbled. It was a reminder of how fragile goodwill can be. Whatever Flanagan accomplishes, one super-storm could blow it all away.
REPAIRING THE DAMAGE
CMP’s customer-service problems came to a head in January, when the PUC cut its earnings by nearly $10 million as a penalty, citing the company’s longstanding customer service failings and mismanagement of its new metering and billing system. The action followed a two-year probe and was the largest financial penalty ever imposed on a Maine electric utility for poor management. It reflected findings by the Maine Sunday Telegram that the utility mismanaged the rollout and then sought to downplay its own mistakes.
At the same time, regulators agreed that CMP was entitled to what it termed “a modest rate increase” to pay for reliability upgrades to its electric grid and to hire more staff to improve customer service.
This was the company Flanagan was hired to revive. Structurally, he returned to a utility where he was once the final decision-maker, but is now just part of Avangrid’s networks division. Through centralized management, he discovered, the social, political and cultural connections that had helped CMP build bridges to customers had eroded.
“I think a big problem was that the company seemed to have lost touch in some ways with its customers,” Flanagan said in a recent interview. “It sort of drifted away.”
To help rebuild those bridges, Flanagan has focused first on beefing up customer service functions. CMP hired a vice president dedicated to customer service issues. It added 25 operators to the call centers. And it’s offering a $25 guarantee for inaccurate or late bills. It so far has paid out $17,000, most for a single computer glitch that failed to print out bills for roughly 2,000 customers.
Refocusing attention on what matters most to customers – accurate bills, prompt service – has helped CMP largely meet stricter service-quality metrics ordered by state regulators in the wake of the billing investigation.
That has translated into far fewer complaints to the agency. PUC records show complaints and informal contacts peaked at 5,556 cases in 2018. Roughly 20 percent came in March of that year, as high bills started arriving after that record cold snap. Total cases dropped to 3,460 last year and stood at 847 for the first eight months of 2020. Digging into the data, the most common complaints today involve payment notices and arrangements.
Separately, CMP is required to file monthly and quarterly reports with the PUC on its ongoing efforts to resolve all “customer-facing defects” with software and its SmartCare billing system. As of late summer, CMP was reporting what the PUC terms “slow but steady progress,” and had fixed 21 of 33 outstanding defects.
MAKING NEW CONNECTIONS
After years of being seen as hostile to renewable energy, CMP under Flanagan also has begun exhibiting signs of a sustainability-focused utility.
CMP is working with Efficiency Maine Trust on pilot projects for electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Flanagan wants the company to scale up installations to help Maine meet its ambitious carbon reduction and climate goals. Although not stated, CMP also would benefit from selling more electricity to replace gasoline power.
CMP has a model. In New York, where Avangrid operates two utilities, the state recently approved a major program to help electrify the transportation system. Again not stated, that program relies on $700 million in ratepayer subsidies.
More immediately, CMP is repairing its testy relationship with Maine’s fast-growing solar energy industry.
The company recently put together a team of roughly 100 employees and contractors to help solar developers assess the technical requirements for more than 500 projects that have applied to connect to the utility grid. Many of those projects will drop out, but there’s a new urgency under Flanagan to whittle down the years-long backlog in the so-called interconnection queue.
The new attitude is welcomed by ReVision Energy, a major, Maine-based solar installer. Fortunat Mueller, a founding partner, said Flanagan recently reached out to him, asking if the utility was doing all it could to help with interconnections. Mueller told him there was work to be done, but that the company deserved credit for making progress.
“I would say that over the past few months, CMP understands that distributed solar is part of the future and they want to be part of it,” Mueller said. “They realize if they want to own the utility in Maine, they need to be a partner.”
Flanagan’s call to Mueller reflects his manner of reaching out and trying to find common ground, according to Barry Hobbins, the state’s Public Advocate. Hobbins said Flanagan called two days before his position was publicly announced, giving him a heads-up. Now, they speak a few times every month.
“He’s been more proactive in the last six months than any president of Central Maine Power since he left in 2000,” said Hobbins, whose office represents utility ratepayers. “He has a style and a way about him that is respectful, he listens, but he also can be stern when he feels strongly about an issue.”
Hobbins noted that his office has been tough on CMP, pushing for stiffer penalties and accountability when the company stumbled. That’s not changing, Hobbins said. But he thinks Avangrid saw the need to lower the temperature around CMP and recognized Flanagan’s unique abilities.
“Avangrid brought him in,” Hobbins said. “He has the full blessing and support of Avangrid. They created a position for him.”
Making CMP into a less-controversial company can help the bottom line at an investor-owned utility, according to David Littell, a former PUC commissioner. Negative media coverage and public unrest can create anxiety for shareholders.
“When there’s nothing negative in Maine, it certainly helps,” said Littell, who’s now an environmental and energy attorney. “But the bigger issue is whether things are being handled competently, whether Wall Street thinks CMP management can effectively solve the problems.”
But problems will remain, even if Flanagan can help bring calm to customer service.
Persistent opposition to the pending New England Clean Energy Connect hydroelectric corridor, designed to send power from Quebec to Massachusetts, continues to bedevil the company. This is a public policy issue that’s outside day-to-day operations, but it spills over into how people view their local utility.
That view remains harsh for the thousands of customers who formed a Facebook opposition group two years ago, when the billing problems were at their peak. Today, complaints still trickle into CMP Ratepayers Unite, according to Lauren Loomis, who administers the site. The complaints are forwarded to lawyers who represent customers seeking a class-action lawsuit against the company. A U.S. District Court judge currently is deciding whether that case can proceed.
But more and more, Loomis said, attention on the website is turning to the consumer-owned power campaign. Essentially, a customer group formed over high bills is morphing into a brigade of foot soldiers in the movement to oust CMP.“We’re seeing that as being more important at this point,” she said. “That’s how we feel. No matter what, CMP will find a way to keep doing what it’s doing, so there should be new ownership.”
ICE STORM MEMORIES
A key talking point for consumer power advocates is reliability. They say consumer-owned companies do a better job of keeping the lights on after storms, which are becoming more frequent and intense as the climate changes. They point to the experiences of Maine’s small collection of utilities not owned by CMP or Versant.
For Flanagan, restoring service after one of Maine’s biggest natural disasters was his trial by ice.
On Jan. 8, 1998, Mainers awoke in cold, dark homes following a lingering ice storm that would take out power for up to two weeks. Radio stations began running ads featuring Flanagan.
“If we work together and look out for each other,” he told anyone who could hear him, “we’ll get through this.”
Viewers able to watch television saw Flanagan, clad in work clothes, in the field talking to customers. Newspaper ads showing CMP line workers and ice-coated trees reinforced a marketing message by echoing a catchphrase of the era: “Now more than ever, remember that no line is safe to touch.”
For older Mainers, the Ice Storm of 1998 was the storm of record. Flanagan’s visibility as a hands-on problem solver and CMP’s dogged efforts elevated the utility and its president in the public eye.
But 1998 was a simpler time. In today’s digital age, with so much of life tied to the internet, losing power (and a high-speed connection) even for an hour or two seems unacceptable to many.
Avangrid has a broad plan to make its networks more resilient. As part of that plan, CMP last year asked state regulators for $29 million to harden its distribution system with stronger poles, wires that resist tree damage and additional circuits. But the request was trimmed back.
“Increased storm activity and the effects of a rapidly changing global climate have shone a light on the importance of reliability and resiliency planning,” the PUC said in its order. “But these improvements come with a price tag, and ratepayers can only bear so much of the cost.”
Instead, regulators decided to study the upgrades CMP is now performing along a trouble-prone area in the region encompassing Dover-Foxcroft and Jackman. They want to use it as a test case, to see how the improvements reduce the frequency and duration of outages.
Meanwhile, CMP is focusing on three other of its worst-performing circuits, as well as shielding 11,000 transformers with guards to deter animal damage and keeping up with its state-mandated, five-year tree-trimming cycle. But in the nation’s most forested state, trees remain the biggest threat to electric service. Complicating the matter, a total of 37 percent of outages this year involved trees falling on wires from outside CMP’s right-of-way.
So resiliency is a long game, and it’s not clear how long Flanagan will stay to see it through.
“I’ll leave when I feel I have contributed all I can, or when the company wants change, or if I have health issues,” he said. “I can’t last forever.”
But before he departs again, Flanagan is reaching back into the future.
Mainers of a certain age remember ads featuring Jim Wright, the burly CMP line worker who implored them with his Downeast accent: “No line is safe to touch, evah!”
On “The Nite Show,” Flanagan told Cashman that CMP is producing a new version of the ads this fall with Wright, who still works for the company. Flanagan was cagey about the details, but he indicated that Wright would appear along with a younger line worker.
This appeal to nostalgia, to memories of a once-popular CMP, will be charged with symbolism. It will be the handoff of the hard hat to a new generation and, Flanagan can hope, the goodwill that went with it.