PUC rejects proposed $75 power bill credit for low-income Mainers

PUC rejects proposed  power bill credit for low-income Mainers

An emergency request to help low-income Mainers struggling with high utility bills was rejected Tuesday by the Public Utilities Commission, which said it didn’t need legal authority to grant the request and raised concerns other customers would have to pick up the tab.

It concerned a request by the state’s public advocate, William Harwood, for a one-time billing credit for each of the approximately 25,000 customers of Central Maine Power and Versant Power who have enrolled in the state’s Low-Income Assistance Program.

“Maine customers need immediate help,” Harwood said in his petition. “Providing a $75 credit will help low-income customers buy the electricity they need, thereby avoiding late fee charges, reducing utility bad debt write-offs and reducing the number of customers at risk of disruption.”

But the PUC unanimously rejected the request.

Philip Bartlett, the chairman of the PUC, reviewed several statutes regarding the agency’s authority and found that none would grant Harwood’s motion. He also noted that costs could be shifted to other struggling Mainers who don’t qualify for low-income programs.

“This ad hoc approach to interest rate relief would result in a shift in costs and is not practical or sustainable,” Bartlett said.

After the decision, Harwood said the rejection caught him off guard.

“I’m disappointed, but actually I’m also a bit stunned,” he said in a statement. “The PUC interprets the law as not having the authority to do so, but it is no different than the emergency payments approved last year. The need is immediate, the legal issue is the same as last year but this time the PUC has sidelined the issue.”

Rate increases for CMP and Versant customers who purchase their electricity through the government’s standard offering program are scheduled to take effect in January. Most of the power in 2023 will be supplied by subsidiaries of New Brunswick Power and NextEra Energy, which won competitive bids at the PUC. CMP and Versant supply electricity but do not generate it.

Beginning January 1, utility prices for residential and small business customers in CMP’s service area will increase from 11.8 cents per kilowatt hour to 17.6 cents, a 49% increase. Electricity accounts for about 60% of the total monthly bill. When delivery charges are added, the total bill for a typical 550 kWh customer increases by $31.98 per month, from $122.59 to $154.58, a 26% increase.

The PUC also approved a new shipping rate for Versant customers. The new tariff will increase the bill by nearly $24 from $114.78 to $138.55 for a typical household using 550 kWh of electricity per month.

Harwood said his $25 per number approximated the monthly increases of the CMP service area and two Versant-served areas to receive a single statewide billing credit.

CMP serves 636,000 customers in the southern and central parts of the state. Versant serves approximately 159,000 customers in northern and eastern Maine.

looming crisis

Tuesday’s action is the state government’s latest attempt to ease the energy bill burden on Mainers, who faced record prices last year to heat and light their homes.

Last March, nearly 90,000 low-income families received a $90 credit on their utility bills from CMP and Versant through a similar process at the PUC. The money came from the Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program to help cover the cost of the $8 million loan, which is administered by the Maine State Housing Authority.

Denying the request, Bartlett noted that the Maine Legislature is willing to consider an energy relief funding request and that this is a more appropriate forum.

Bartlett was referring to an upcoming public hearing on the legislature on Wednesday regarding a proposed $450 relief check backed by Gov. Janet Mills. The emergency bill, which targets both high energy and housing costs exacerbated by inflation, failed to win approval from Senate Republicans earlier this month. The rejection led to partisan fingerprints, new negotiations and the forthcoming hearing.

Excluding electricity tariffs, residential heating oil hit a national record high of $5.71 a gallon in mid-November, according to price surveys conducted by the Governor’s Office of Energy. Prices have fallen this month to an average of $4.50 a gallon in last week’s survey and many dealers are selling below $3.80. But kerosene, used in many manufactured homes, has remained stubbornly high, averaging $6.72 a gallon. Oil and kerosene will be burned to heat six in 10 Maine homes.

To help with heating bills, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services is issuing a new round of heating bills to help older, low-income Mainers pay high energy bills. It will make one-time payments of $500 to 13,000 qualifying households, including people age 65 and older with incomes below 133 percent of the federal poverty line. The $6.6 million one-time cost comes from existing state funds targeting older Mainers at risk of illness from the common cold, DHHS said, and complements other heating aids distributed earlier this year.

In his petition to the PUC, Harwood estimated that the program would cost about $1.9 million and that utilities could recoup the cost through higher distribution rates “at a later date, when utility prices are not so exorbitant.” Harwood noted that at current prices, the $1.9 million represented less than 0.5% of CMP and Versant’s combined revenue of about $425 million.

As the state government considers ways to reduce this winter’s energy load, market forces are providing relief to gasoline prices. GasBuddy, the online fuel savings platform, said on Tuesday that gas prices had fallen to their lowest level in 18 months. According to GasBuddy’s website, a handful of gas stations in southern Maine now sell fuel under $3 a gallon.

This story will be updated.

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