Ten businesses in northern Penobscot and southern Aroostook counties filed a complaint with state regulators last week after monthly electric bills more than doubled for some.
Increased electricity supply rates took effect at the start of the year, and electric customers knew an increase was coming, but the businesses said the size of the jump came as a surprise, Jon Ellis, owner of Ellis Family Market in Patten, wrote in the complaint filed with the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
“While we were all made aware that power bills would be increasing, there was no point in time that a doubling in costs was put forward,” Ellis wrote. “This is not sustainable.”
The complaint represents the latest sign of frustration from businesses and residents who have seen their electric bills spike since the start of the year. Ratepayers across Maine saw sizable jumps at the start of the year, including an 89 percent increase in the cost per kilowatt hour for small Versant Power customers. The Maine Public Utilities Commission said the typical residential customer would see a $25 to $30 monthly increase.
The state’s electric supply rates are determined through a bid process managed by the Maine Public Utilities Commission. The electric supply rate, which goes to electricity generators, is separate from the rate utilities charge to deliver the power.
Ellis said the only way to offset the drastic spike at his business is to increase prices and cut employees, which hurts customers, hinders a company’s potential growth and discourages other entrepreneurs in the region.
At Jerry’s Food Store in Island Falls, owner Gerald Violette said his electric bill jumped from $4,146 in December to $9,160 in January, though his usage didn’t change.
“We were accustomed to paying the same amount for electricity. Month to month, we can bank on what it is going to be,” said Violette, who signed Ellis’ complaint. “The wintertime is not the time to be doing this. People struggle during the winter months to heat their homes.”
To offset the expense, Violette said he turned off five of his 15 drink coolers to cut down on his electricity use and increased prices in his store to avoid laying off employees.
“Most items in this store have increased anywhere from a nickel to a dime per unit, just to make up the difference,” Violette said. “Twenty years ago I switched to LEDs and tried to conserve energy and got my power bill down. In one month, those savings disappeared 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 seeing electric bills for both businesses double.
Katahdin Brew Works, which recently opened its taproom, used about 13,000 kilowatt hours from mid-November to mid-December, resulting in a $176 electric bill. Though the company used about 19,000 kilowatt hours from January to February — about a 46 percent jump — he said his electricity bill rose to $615, almost a 250 percent spike.
“That’s a humongous jump,” said Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick said the electric bill at his 2,000-square-foot drugstore nearly doubled between December and February even though the store’s power use barely changed.
“I would like to see the PUC take some action to put the rates back to where people could manage it,” Fitzpatrick said. “I want to know why it’s such a large increase, but I don’t expect to hear an answer.”
Maine PUC spokesperson Susan Faloon declined to comment on the complaint, but said electricity price increases were driven largely by spikes in natural gas costs.
“In fact, Maine’s prices are in line with the rest of New England and are actually lower than in Massachusetts and New Hampshire,” she said.
Versant spokesperson Judy Long didn’t comment on the complaint, but said the company would submit a response if the Public Utilities Commission asks for one.
Versant customers saw a 17.5 percent increase in the utility’s distribution rates last November before an 89 percent jump in electric supply costs took effect in January for customers buying the standard offer electric supply. Long also noted that power use was generally higher in January, which was historically cold.
But because Versant doesn’t produce the electricity its customers use, Long said, the utility doesn’t “benefit in any way from price changes and all money is forwarded to the competitive and standard offer suppliers.”