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Exactly a year ago, the Bangor Daily News editorial board lamented big increases in electricity costs for Maine people and businesses. This week, state regulators again approved big jumps in electricity prices for most Maine customers for the next year.
Unfortunately, little has happened in the past year to change the state’s power supply landscape. As long as Maine remains so heavily reliant on natural gas to generate electricity, prices will remain volatile.
This week, it was announced that electricity prices for most Maine residents will rise by between $20 and $30 a month under rate increases set by the Maine Public Utilities Commission. These rates are for what is called “standard offer,” which is how most residential customers buy their electricity.
Standard offer rates, which are essentially the cost of the energy supply, are the most volatile part of energy pricing, PUC chairman Phil Barlett told the BDN editorial board during a recent meeting. Although the rates are negotiated by the PUC, they are largely driven by natural gas prices, which are on the rise.
Customers of Versant, in eastern and northern Maine, will see standard offer rates increase about 41 percent in January.
Central Maine Power customers will see a 49 percent increase in the price of their electricity supply next year.
These increases are on top of price hikes of more than 80 percent that were approved by the PUC last November.
Although most of the electricity generated within Maine is from renewable sources, this in-state supply falls short of demand. So, Maine imports a significant amount of its electricity. The New England grid is highly dependent on natural gas and natural gas prices remain higher than last year and are trending upward as winter approaches and demand increases.
Gov. Janet Mills opposed the rate increases but the PUC had little leeway to reject these power supply bids. The costs of delivering electricity to homes and businesses, which CMP and Versant have more control over, are set through different PUC processes.
“The standard offer prices accepted by the PUC are the direct result of Maine’s overreliance on fossil fuels, particularly natural gas, and the unprecedented volatility in global energy markets since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, all of which are now costing Maine people and businesses far too much to fill their tanks and power their homes as we head into the winter months,” Mills said in a press release.
The governor, and lawmakers, have approved significant investments in renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, and in switching cars and homes away from fossil fuels to electricity. But, the transition to renewable energy is slow and there is opposition to large projects that would increase the state’s supply of cleaner energy. The rejection by voters of CMP’s transmission line across western Maine is one example.
The PUC has given initial approval to an early phase of a project that would bring wind energy generated in Aroostook County into the region’s power grid, but that project is years from fruition.
If and when this and other renewable energy projects come online, electricity supply costs will come down, Barlett said.
That, of course, doesn’t help Mainers who will be facing bigger electricity bills this winter.
Mills said she has directed her administration “to examine every solution possible to this crisis.” She also said her administration is preparing legislation that will include ways to help Mainers deal with high energy costs for consideration by lawmakers next month.
“We must ensure that Maine people have support and security to heat their homes and keep themselves and their families safe,” the governor said.
The new Legislature, which will be sworn in next month, must focus both on short-term ways to help Mainers pay their energy bills this winter and speeding up the diversification of the state’s energy supply for the long run.