Versant crews repair damage to power lines along Bennoch Road in Orono after an August 2020 thunderstorm. Credit: Nina Mahaleris / BDN

Versant Power asked regulators Thursday to approve an average $10.50 per month increase in the distribution part of its electric bill starting next July.

The utility cited maintenance and upgrades, technology investments and labor market pressures as reasons for the request to the Maine Public Utilities Commission. It comes as surging energy prices have caused electricity supply rates to rise sharply.

Gov. Janet Mills and the Public Advocate William Harwood were quick to question the request. Mills said she will direct her energy office to oppose it and ask the commission to reject it. 

The public advocate said it will evaluate the request for evidence of costs that should not be passed on to ratepayers, although Versant said it is “not seeking to earn greater return on investments as part of this request.

“The timing of Versant’s proposed increase is unfortunate,” Harwood said. “Mainers are already struggling to pay high energy costs.”

The commission already approved an 89 percent hike for electricity supply for most Versant customers who use the standard offer price. An electricity bill includes two components, electricity supply and delivery. The electricity supply rate is set by the competitive bidding process required by Maine law, not by the electric companies.

Under the requested hike in the distribution rate, residential customers in Versant’s Bangor Hydro District using an average of 500 kilowatt hours per month would see their current bill rise to $125.29 per month if the request is approved. Those in the Maine Public District serving Aroostook County and a small part of Penobscot County would see their monthly bill rise to $114.59. Versant serves 159,000 customers in northern and eastern Maine.

Customers using 750 kilowatt hours per month would see their bill increase $15 to $16, and those using 1,000 kilowatt hours will see a hike of $21.

The company said it plans to replace its metering system, which is at the end of its useful life. It also plans to replace deteriorating cables on islands off the coast of Maine, build a new substation in Machias, improve reliability in Old Town and Orono and install more equipment in northern Maine to prevent tree-related outages.

Central Maine Power Co., which serves 646,000 customers in southern and central Maine, faced harsh criticism from Mills in May when it asked regulators to raise its distribution rates over three years starting in 2023 to cover a $570 million reliability improvement plan. 

Under that request, the average CMP customer would pay $5 more per month in the first year of the plan, bringing the average bill for a residential customer using 550 kilowatt hours of electricity to $131 per month. The rate would go up $2.5o per month in each of the following two years of the plan, bringing the rate in the third year to $136 per month.