Following complaints about spiking electricity bills over the past couple weeks, Maine regulators on Thursday launched an investigation into Electricity Maine, whose rates more than doubled for some in January.
The Maine Public Utilities Commission said some customers of Electricity Maine, the largest competitive-energy provider in the state, saw fixed rates for their electricity supply end and switch to a variable rate of 39 cents per kilowatt hour or more — the highest increase in the state.
For 80-year-old Glenn Byron of Smithfield, that meant his most recent electricity bill shot up to $393.28, more than double the previous month. Like many who complained to the commission, he had come off of a fixed rate with Electricity Maine, whose supply charges more than tripled from $103 in December to $315 last month, accounting for nearly the entire increase in his bill.
The hike is more than double the supply rates for Central Maine Power and Versant Power’s Bangor Hydro District, which went up 49 percent and 40 percent, respectively, in January.
“In recent months, [the commission] has received over 170 calls from Electricity Maine customers with inquiries and complaints about sudden and significant bill increases with respect to their supply of electricity,” commission Chair Philip Bartlett said.
He said customers may have signed up for a competitive-energy provider years ago and might not remember there is a standard-offer option. Maine consumers can either choose the standard price set by competitive bidding or a competitive energy provider like Electricity Maine, which may or may not be less expensive.
Kira Jordan, spokesperson for Electricity Maine’s parent company Spark Energy, said Electricity Maine “is ready and available to engage with the commission to understand their concerns and work towards a quick resolution.”
Commission rules mandate competitive-energy suppliers provide written notice to customers of a change from a fixed to a variable rate. The notice must occur two times between 30 and 60 calendar days in advance of a renewal of service. All three commissioners supported a formal investigation into Electricity Maine’s notification practices and whether the company was in full compliance with regulations in Maine.
Consumers should contact the commission if they don’t think they got proper notice and the commission will look into it, Bartlett said. He said they have received complaints about a lack of notices. The commission has broad investigative powers and has investigated competitive-energy providers, including Electricity Maine, in the past.
“If consumers did not get the appropriate notice, they can get a refund,” he said.
Electricity Maine, which is owned by multi-state natural gas and electricity supplier Spark Energy of Texas, said it only offers fixed-term contracts for new enrollments and renewals. Customers whose contracts end can renew them on another fixed-term basis or pay month-to-month, said Kira Jordan, spokesperson at Spark Energy.
Electricity Maine also ran afoul of the commission two years ago when it was fined $500,000 for false and deceptive marketing made by its sales agents during door-to-door campaigns in late 2017 to 2018. The fine was the highest administrative penalty the commission could give out.
The commission also permanently revoked the company’s ability to engage in door-to-door marketing and revoked for one year any residential marketing activities in Maine via telephone, internet or any other means.
The company also was ordered to provide existing customers enrolled through door-to-door marketing a written notice of the commission’s ruling and of an opportunity to transfer to standard offer service without an early termination fee.
A separate federal class-action lawsuit against Electricity Maine’s parent settled in 2020 also alleged fraud and deceptive marketing practices that promised initial rates lower than the standard offer that later increased sharply.
The case alleged that between 2011 and 2014, Electricity Maine enrolled nearly 200,000 households and small businesses in its electricity-supply services with the promise of substantial cost savings. The settlement created a $14 million fund to pay out to about 43,000 customers with valid claims.