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Here's why electric bills are soaring in Maine — and what the state's trying to do about it

In this Tuesday, May 28, 2019 photo power lines span the Androscoggin River in Auburn, Mane.
Robert F. Bukaty
In this Tuesday, May 28, 2019 photo power lines span the Androscoggin River in Auburn, Mane.

Electricity customers in Maine are in for a big increase in their monthly bills next year.

Most customers served by Central Maine Power and Versant Power could see an increase of $30 a month — and more price spikes might soon be on the way.

Maine Public's Climate Reporter, Murray Carpenter, spoke with Robbie Feinberg to explain why.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Feinberg: So Murray, these latest increases apply to the electricity supply rate on Mainers' electric bills. In simple terms, can you explain what that actually means?

Carpenter: Yeah, so I've got my CMP bill right here. And right on top, it has an account summary that shows two different charges. The first is for electricity delivery. And that's what they're charging me to send the juice over the power lines and into my house. And the second is electricity supply. And that's the rate that's going up soon for most Mainers.

Feinberg: Okay. Got it. So last week, the Public Utilities Commission approved rate hikes coming out to about 26% for CMP customers and about 20% for Versant customers. Now that sounds like a lot. What is it going to mean for the average customer, and why are we seeing such a big jump?

Carpenter: It sounds like a lot, and it is a lot. According to the PUC, the average residential CMP bill will increase about $32 a month. The average Versant bill about $24 a month. So it's significant. I spoke with Bill Harwood about this. He's Maine's public advocate. So he represents the interests of Maine consumers in utility matters. And he says the phone at his office has been ringing off the hook. People are really concerned about the rate increases. He says the increase is due to the cost of natural gas, which is a big source of electricity for Maine and for the New England grid in general. And he says this increasing cost is a regional, it's even a global issue.

Harwood: That is all driven by the fossil fuel industry, the war in Ukraine, Putin and the congestion in the pipeline between Pennsylvania gas fields and Maine are all out-of-state things over which we can't control, that is driving up the cost.

Feinberg: So that's not great news. Knowing that though, we are expected to see more rate hikes next year, right?

Carpenter: Yeah, that's right. So this is the other bad news. And this comes from that other portion of the bill, the delivery portion. So both CMP and Versant have asked the PUC to allow them to increase those rates by about 30%. And that could start next summer. And that's partly so they can improve their reliability. And there's a climate link here because as climate is bringing a growing number of severe storms that can wreak havoc on power lines, they want to increase the reliability of those. Harwood says another cost to the utilities has to do with a growing number of rooftop solar panels that actually require energy transmission to flow two ways. So it's now going both like into our homes and out of our homes in some cases.

Feinberg: Yeah. Now on that subject of solar. I wanted to touch on that because it seems that the subject of renewables has really turned into a politically divisive subject. Even last week when these hikes were announced the response from House Republicans was that, "state policies favoring solar and wind at the expense of family budgets need to be changed." So is the push to renewables actually playing a big factor here?

Carpenter: Well, the public advocate says that current increase in electricity rates is not being driven by renewable energy projects. In fact, ratepayers benefited modestly because the PUC has encouraged investments in renewables. But in that press release, the Republicans raised concerns about so called net energy billing. And that does involve generous subsidies that the state is paying for small distributed wind and solar projects. Harwood says that's not yet driving up costs, but it could in several years if more of those projects get built, and if the late legislature doesn't further modify this program.

Feinberg: Have leaders of either party said what they plan to do this winter to ease the situation for people who are already struggling with inflation?

Carpenter: The Republicans want to work on that net energy billing and they're promising several other bills to lower energy costs. The Mills administration sent out a press release basically saying it will be working with Legislature to address high electricity costs. So not many specifics from either team yet but in general state policy now, current state policy, is to move toward renewables and away from fossil fuels. Celina Cunningham of the Governor's Energy Office says over time, this will reduce the volatility in electricity rates,

Cunningham: And provide more homegrown renewable energy resources for the state that not only lower electricity costs, but also keep those economic benefits and clean energy jobs here in Maine.

Carpenter: And speaking of homegrown energy, Our Power has also weighed in on the rate increases. This is the group behind the citizen initiative that will be on the ballot next year. They're proposing a consumer-owned utility called Pine Tree Power that would replace CMP and Versant. They say the rate increases that we're seeing partly reflect something really basic: corporate greed. So Mainers will be voting on that next fall.

And finally, I should mention that the PUC website has a list of resources for anyone who's having trouble paying their bills.

Murray Carpenter is Maine Public’s climate reporter, covering climate change and other environmental news.