CAMDEN — Stephen Enggass of Camden said he knew his electricity bill was going to rise in 2022, but he was still caught off guard when it went from $358 one month to $583 the next.

“This morning when I looked at that, I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I knew it was coming but I was still quite alarmed.”

Enggass uses heat pumps that run on electricity to stay warm during winter months.

“Any cost savings from the heat pumps is completely gone,” he said. “I might as well have oil heat.”

“The important thing for people to understand is that this is not a CMP rate increase,” said CMP/Avangrid Communications Manager Catharine Hartnett. “CMP has not raised rates. What customers are seeing is an increase in the cost of generating electricity — the standard offer supply rate. This is a rate set annually by the Maine Public Utilities Commission based on a competitive bid and is based on the market prices for the fuels used to generate electricity.”

She notes that CMP has not generated electricity for more than 20 years, but deals in delivery, which covers things like poles, wires, transmission systems and substation maintenance — the grid.

Both supply and delivery are covered in the same bill that goes to customers.

Looking at Enggass’s bill, one sees that the increase was under “supply.”

In November, the Maine Public Utilities Commission accepted bids and set the new standard offer electricity supply rates for CMP customers, according to a press release from the PUC at the time.

“Residential customers who receive standard offer service can expect an increase of about 83 percent in their supply rates effective January 1, 2022,” the release stated. “The new residential standard offer price amounts to an increase of about $30 per month on the total bill for an average customer using 550 kWh/month, or an increase from about $96 to about $126.”

However, that increase can be felt more severely in winter months when more power is used, especially by those who have electric heat or heat pumps.

The real cause of the bill increase is the rise in the price of fuels used to generate electricity.

“Wholesale electric prices have increased in much of New England due to global market conditions, which are dominated by the cost of natural gas,” PUC media liaison Susan Faloon said in an email. “In fact, Maine’s prices are in line with the rest of New England and are actually lower than in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.”

Hartnett said CMP informed customers of the coming increase in advance and urges those who have trouble paying their bills to go to the company’s website or call to talk about assistance options.

“Depending upon the specific customer, our representatives may refer them to a CAP agency to see if they qualify for state programs ( funded by the utilities) or for the Emergency Rental Assistance program through Maine Housing (COVID funding),” Hartnett said. “Again this is on that web page.”

“The bottom line is that any customer facing hardship with bills should call us and we will do what we can to assist,” she said. “We can’t help if people don’t call, and every customer is in a different situation.”

Faloon said, “the Commission’s Consumer Assistance and Safety Division is seeing an uptick in customer calls related to the higher bills from customers all across Maine.”

She said a full list of agencies that can help are available on the Maine Public Utilities Commission website and Efficiency Maine can help customers reduce energy usage through rebate programs.

Hartnett said there is no relationship between the electricity cost increase and the decision by voters in Maine in November to vote down the $1 billion CMP corridor that would bring hydropower through western Maine on its way to Massachusetts.

Hartnett said that “regardless of how a utility is owned, it has to supply electricity to customers and will be subject to market rates.”

CMP, meanwhile, may face another challenge at the polls in 2023.

Our Power, a coalition of Maine citizens who favor replacing investor-owned utilities CMP and Versant with a consumer-owned  nonprofit utility, is gathering signatures to force the issue onto the ballot in 2023, according to Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, who has advocated the change for several years.

He argues changing to a consumer-owned utility would save 10 percent on bills from day one, “even accounting for the purchase price of the utility,” and he sees increasing savings in future years.

In the meantime, he argues: “Big oil and gas and the big utility monopolies are the winners, getting a ride off the backs of Maine’s families and businesses.”

Changing to a publicly-owned utility might not affect the volatile fossil fuel prices driving the present bill increases for Mainers, but it would mean that the primary goal of the utility would not be to pay investors out of the country (CMP’s parent company is based in Spain). Berry argues delivery rates have increased as well as supply rates over time and those increases are more permanent than the current upswing in supply costs.

The fight for the public’s vote has already begun with ad campaigns targeting Our Power’s proposal. Berry said Our Power expects to be outspent in the campaign, but said Mainers are smart and will not buy into what he calls “fake groups” promoting the investor-owned utilities’ agenda.

Among those he said are “Maine Affordable Energy Coalition,” which he argued is preposterous. He said those behind this coalition want expensive energy for Spain. Another group, “No Blank Checks” seeks to require consumer-owned utilities to gain a vote of approval when borrowing, while allowing investor-owned utilities to continue to borrow without such approval.

While change may come in the future, for this winter, higher electricity bills are here and they affect everyone.

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