Philip Bartlett, chairman of the Maine Public Utilities Commission, speaks with reporters at the University of Southern Maine in Portland in July 2019. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Marcella Kenny is used to paying her monthly utility bills, but her family’s most recent electric bill came with a shock — an increase of more than $60 between December and January, bringing the Bangor resident’s bill to almost $277. That’s $120 more than she paid for November.

Kenny, a registered nurse, is among the Mainers noticing substantially higher electric bills after new electric supply rates took effect Jan. 1 that are more than 80 percent higher across the state than the same rates last year. The increase is taking some by surprise, causing frustration and prompting more to ask for help paying their bills.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission’s consumer assistance division has fielded 399 calls since Jan. 31, as utility bills reflecting the new electric rates have arrived. The calls have all come from Mainers expressing frustration and concern over their higher bills, according to Susan Faloon, a Public Utilities Commission spokesperson. 

Electric bills spiked as a result of the annual bidding process the Maine Public Utilities Commission goes through each year to set electricity supply rates. The commission finished that process in November, announcing that residential Versant Power customers would see the power supply portion of their bills rise by about 89 percent while residential customers of Central Maine Power were set to see an 83 percent increase

Residential customers in Versant’s Bangor Hydro District — which includes most of Penobscot County as well as Hancock, Piscataquis and Washington counties — have seen their power supply rate skyrocket from 6.2 cents per kilowatt-hour to 11.68. That nearly 90 percent increase works out to an increase of $30 a month and $360 a year for the average customer using 550-kilowatt hours per month. 

That’s the rate only for the electricity itself, and it only represents a portion of a customer’s electric bill. The monthly bill also includes the price charged by the state’s electric utilities for delivering the power and maintaining their statewide distribution network of poles and wires.

In Maine, the electric utilities are responsible only for delivering electricity to homes and businesses. A collection of power generators that produce the power supply the electricity itself. 

Under Maine law, the Public Utilities Commission solicits bids from power generators each year for the standard offer electricity supply — ratepayers’ default option for buying electricity. 

The increase to this year’s standard offer reflects costs from regional and national energy markets, and they represented the best option available, Faloon said. 

“The commission chooses the best option of the bids received,” she said. “We don’t have full control over those prices. They’re market prices.” 

Much of the electricity used to power New England is generated from natural gas, and energy prices from multiple sources have surged nationwide in recent months after dropping significantly during the economic downturn from the COVID-19 pandemic. The elevated costs can also be traced in part to a cold snap through much of the country last February that raised energy demand. The effects of that cold snap are still reverberating through energy markets.

The supply portion of Mainers’ electric bills is subject to market rates because of a 2000 restructuring of Maine’s electricity industry that forced utilities such as Central Maine Power Co. to get out of the power-generating business, Faloon said. The utilities had to sell any power-generating assets they had, and the energy supply portion of consumers’ bills came to be governed by market prices and the Public Utilities Commission bid process.

Kenny has been working with a group of about 55 residents from Bangor’s Fairmount neighborhood to produce a letter they intend to send to the Public Utilities Commission, outlining their frustrations and concerns with the recent price spike. 

The letter, Kenny said, is not intended to be accusatory. She and her neighbors want more transparency, direct communication about increases and more easily accessible information regarding resources. 

Kenny said residents are frustrated that the only option for help they are consistently referred to is working out a payment plan with the power company. But that isn’t enough, she said. 

“That’s not acceptable. Because, unlike a mortgage for your home or a loan for a car, you pay that down,” she said. With an electric utility, “we have another bill coming and we haven’t even paid off the first one. So, the new one will be added on top.”

Sawyer Loftus is an investigative reporter at the Bangor Daily News. A graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he worked for Vermont Public Radio, The Burlington Free Press...