High electric bills jolt area residents

ELLSWORTH — Warnings from Versant, Central Maine Power (CMP) and the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) late last year over an 80-plus percent hike in standard electricity supply rates in 2022 did little to prepare customers when they opened their February bills.

The result for many was first shock, then panic. Customers had been told that the average increase would be about $30 per month.

“Last month (January) my electric bill was $138…I just got my new bill, and the new charges were $504.81 for 28 days!” Sorrento resident and Versant customer Pam Calcia told The American. “I have never in my life ever had an electric bill with charges of more than my mortgage payment.”

Calcia had just added two humidifiers to her electrical load but said she doesn’t run a dryer, washer, furnace or dishwasher. She heats with two propane heaters.

Ellsworth resident Joel Mitchell’s Versant bill jumped from $400 in 2021 to $861 for the same period this year, although he noted his usage was also up by about half. Mount Desert Island resident Tiffany Victoria’s bill also doubled, from $400 to $800 for one month’s usage.

That the increase came at a time when electricity use is at its highest didn’t help.

“A change like this can be a real hardship for people,” said Judy Long, communications and brand manager for Versant. She and CMP Corporate Communications Manager Emily Spencer both noted the increase’s bad timing for customers. (CMP provides electricity to portions of Bucksport, Orland and Penobscot and fully to Castine and Verona Island.)

But while the power companies are taking the brunt of customer outrage and complaints, they are not to blame for the spike in standard supply rates.

“Maine’s electric utilities do not set the rates for electricity supply, they simply bill on behalf of the suppliers so that customers do not receive two bills,” PUC media liaison Susan Faloon said. “Versant [and CMP] is a delivery company, so they only receive the delivery portion of the bill. This has been the case since 2000 when the Legislature passed deregulation requiring electric utilities to sell off their electricity generating assets.”

And neither is the PUC at fault, Faloon said. “The standard offer price is set through a competitive bidding process, as required by law, in which the Commission chooses the best option.”

She said that global market conditions are behind the wholesale electric price increases, which are dominated by the cost of natural gas, and that Maine’s prices are in line with rates across New England and are lower than in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

But knowing the story behind the increase is not much help to customers like Jade Grindle, a Bucksport resident and Versant customer whose bill more than doubled this year.

“Since the increase, my electric bill has been $370 and just recently $350,” she said. “I’m told that the cold weather is to blame, however I’m reluctant to believe that cold weather is to blame for a 208 percent increase.”

Coupled with rising gas prices, higher fuel bills and increases in grocery costs, the high electric bills make it almost impossible to stay ahead, she added. “We are a young family, new homeowners, and the past two electric bills have been shocking!”

However, there are customers who saw only a modest increase, including Don Greenwood, of Sullivan, whose bill increased only about $45. “I am indeed fortunate,” he said before adding, “That is beyond double what my bill averages throughout the year.”

Long described what assistance is available for Versant customers facing an unaffordable bill. They can sign on for the budget billing program where customers pay the same amount each month, avoiding the winter spike in electricity costs.

Then, there is the payment plan option. “Any customer, regardless of income, can call and be put on a payment plan if they can’t afford the bill,” Long said, “to start paying back what they’ve fallen behind on and to keep from falling further behind.”

In addition, a one-time bill credit of $90 will automatically be applied to low-income customers — those with incomes of 150 percent of the federal poverty rate or less — through a state program designed to help with the rate spike. Versant customers will see this applied to their March bills, Long said.

Versant also runs its own low-income assistance program, which basically connects customers with community assistance programs. If a customer is deemed eligible and there are funds available, the financial assistance is applied directly to the Versant bill.

And it helps to monitor your electric usage to see where it can be lowered, Long and CMP Vice President of Customer Service Linda Ball said.

“We focus on three things,“ Ball said: reduce your usage where possible, shop around for rates and look into assistance programs.

CMP offers free energy manager tools through cmpco.com, as does Versant, at versantpower.com/energy-solutions/manage-your-energy-use/.

But rate shopping among consumer- or municipal-owned utilities will be difficult for Hancock County businesses and residents as there are no companies serving the area. Community solar is another choice but locally this is in the future, as development of solar farms continues across county towns.

“We definitely understand that it’s a challenging time for customers,” CMP Corporate Communications Manager Emily Spencer said. “We’re working as hard as we can to support our customers.”

Understanding may not be enough for Ellsworth business owner Sarah Sika Bowden, who recently moved Sugar Mags Central to a much large location.

“How is a start-up business supposed to pay a $600-plus power bill? Sugar Mags Central won’t survive this rate — just like many others,” she told The American. “What are we supposed to do?”

For Sullivan resident Lexus Howland, whose January bill was $600, she had to do something.

“It blew me and my husband away because we’re used to our bill being $200 in the winter,” Howland said. “Versant said it had been cold. But that didn’t really do it for me. I started digging into the why.”

Howland also started an online petition at Change.org that has garnered over 12,500 signatures as of March 2. She plans to send the petition to Governor Mills after a couple thousand more people sign on.

“I thought drawing attention to the problem would be the first step of the process,” she said. “I’m hoping for Janet Mills or somebody in our state government to look at it and realize this is not sustainable for the average Maine family. We’re already stretched so thin. Something has to be done to put a cap on prices or make electricity more affordable. Something needs to change.”

Anne Berleant

Anne Berleant

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Anne Berleant covers news and features in Ellsworth, Mariaville, Otis, Amherst, Aurora, Great Pond and Osborn. When not reporting, find her hiking local trails, reading or watching professional tennis. Email her at [email protected]

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