Ten companies in northern Penobscot and southern Arostok counties filed a complaint with state regulators last week after some more than doubled monthly electricity bills.
Increased electricity supply rates took effect at the beginning of the year, and electricity customers knew there was an increase coming, but companies said the size of the jump came as a surprise, John Ellis, owner of Ellis Family Market in Patten, wrote in a complaint to the Public Utilities Commission in Maine.
“While we all knew that electricity bills would increase, there was no reason to double the costs,” Ellis wrote. “This is not sustainable.”
The complaint is the latest sign of frustration with businesses and residents who have seen their electricity bills skyrocket since the start of the year. Rating payers across Maine saw big jumps at the start of the year, including an 89 percent increase in cost per kilowatt-hour for small Versant Power customers. The Maine Public Utilities Commission said the typical residential customer would see an increase of $25 to $30 per month.
State electricity supply rates are determined through a bidding process administered by the Maine Public Utilities Commission. The rate of electricity supply, which goes to electricity generators, is separate from the rate of utility charges for power delivery.
Ellis said the only way to offset the sharp rise in his business is to raise prices and cut staff, which hurt customers, stymie potential growth for the company and demoralize other entrepreneurs in the region.
At Jerry’s Food Store in Island Falls, owner Gerald Violet said his electric bill jumped from $4,146 in December to $9,160 in January, although his use has not changed.
We used to pay the same amount for electricity. Month after month, said Violet, who signed Ellis’ complaint. “Winter is not the time to do this. During the winter months, people struggle to heat their homes.”
To make up for the expenses, Violet said he’s turned off five of his 15 beverage coolers to cut his electricity consumption and increase prices at his store to avoid layoffs.
“Most of the items in this store were increased anywhere from nickels to dimes per unit, just to make up the difference,” Violet said. “Twenty years ago, I switched to LED lights and tried to save energy and lowered my electric bill. In a month, those savings were gone when they came out with this rate increase. All that hard work trying to conserve energy went out the door.”
Joel Fitzpatrick, owner of Katahdin Brew Works and Patten Drug Company in Patten, also signed the complaint after he saw both companies’ electric bills double.
Katahdin Brew Works, which recently opened its storage room, consumed about 13,000 kWh from mid-November to mid-December, resulting in a $176 electricity bill. Although the company used about 19,000 kWh from January to February — a jump of about 46 percent — he said his electric bill rose to $615, an increase of nearly 250 percent.
“That’s a huge leap,” Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick said the electric bill at his 2,000-square-foot pharmacy nearly doubled between December and February even though the store’s energy use barely changed.
“I’d like to see PUC take some action to get prices back where people can manage,” Fitzpatrick said. “I want to know the reason for such a large increase, but I do not expect to hear an answer.”
University of Minnesota spokeswoman Susan Fallon declined to comment on the complaint, but said the electricity price increases were largely driven by higher natural gas prices.
“In fact, Maine’s prices are in line with the rest of New England and are actually lower than they are in Massachusetts and New Hampshire,” she said.
Versant spokeswoman Jodi Long did not comment on the complaint, but said the company would provide a response if the Public Utilities Commission requests a response.
Versant customers saw a 17.5 percent increase in utility distribution prices last November before an 89 percent jump in electricity supply costs took effect in January for customers who purchase the standard supply of electrical supply. Long also noted that energy use was generally higher in January, which was historically cold.
But because Versant does not produce the electricity that its customers use, Long said, the benefit “does not benefit in any way from price changes and all money is transferred to suppliers of competitive and standard offerings.”
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