Maine Public Utilities Commission members (from left) staff attorney Jordan McColman, chairperson Philip Bartlett and commissioner Patrick Scully hear comments at the Versant Power rate increase hearing on March 29 at Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle. Credit: Paul Bagnall / The Star Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Aroostook County residents told the Maine Public Utilities Commission Wednesday they can’t afford another electric rate hike.

About 25 area residents turned out for the commission’s public witness hearing at Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle.

It was the second of two sessions held this week to solicit public input on a proposed Versant Power distribution charge increase. The first hearing was held Tuesday evening in Bangor, with around a dozen people attending, said Susan Faloon, Maine Public Utilities Commission spokesperson.

It would be the second increase this year for consumers already hammered with high food, heating and housing costs. An average residential customer would see their monthly electric bill rise almost 11 percent starting this summer.

“We invested in more expensive light bulbs and more expensive appliances to make these changes in the hopes that we would lower our bill and be fiscally responsible,” Presque Isle resident Danielle Fienberg said.

Fienberg was among five who spoke. Versant customers aren’t getting their money’s worth, especially considering there have been frequent power outages, she said.

Profits are going to the holding companies, reliability is deteriorating and customer service is at an all time low, Mike Thibodeau of Presque Isle said. Due to Maine’s low population density, electricity suppliers have declined to bid on the standard offer, which leaves supply rates high.

“I feel it’s hard to talk about just the distribution side of the equation when you put yourself in ratepayers’ shoes, if you will,” he said.

It doesn’t help that Maine’s electric grid is owned by companies outside of the United States who are more interested in profits than in serving Mainers, Thibodeau said.

Enmax of Alberta, Canada, owns Versant Power. Versant serves both Bangor Hydro and Aroostook Counthy’s Maine Public District customers. 

AVANGRID, headquartered in Orange, Connecticut, owns Central Maine Power. AVANGRID is a member of a group of companies owned by Spanish multinational utility company Iberdola SA, according to its website.

Presque Isle resident Mike Thibodeau speaks against the 31 percent rate increase from Versant Power at the hearing held at the Edmunds Conference Center at Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle on March 29. Credit: Paul Bagnall / The Star-Herald Credit: Paul Bagnall / The Star Herald

Presque Isle resident Lee Thomas was surprised that the cost of his electric bill increased around this time of year, when weather is warming and most people aren’t using as much heat as in deep winter.

The new rate increase isn’t sustainable for typical Maine residents and small businesses, Thomas said. He asked Versant what increased costs the company is experiencing that warrant the rate increase.  

Older adults on retirement plans are also feeling the pinch, said Elizabeth Singer of Caribou, program director for Age Friendly Caribou.

Around 14 percent of Caribou residents live below the poverty line, and most are 45 or older, she said.

Older adults have to rely solely on Social Security benefits, which is barely enough to cover groceries, rent or mortgage, heat and gasoline, she said.

Other alternatives must be considered, said Jim Pritchard, Chapman resident. He urged for a study of Versant’s books to determine why a rate increase is justified.

Versant notified customers last September that it planned to increase distribution rates by about 32 percent, or 10 cents per kilowatt hour, across both its Maine Public and Bangor Hydro districts in summer 2023.

A typical residential customer who uses 500 kilowatt hours per month would pay about $12 more per month. The new rates would go into effect around July 1, the company said.

The increases would net the utility around $34 million in additional revenue, according to the letter Versant sent to customers. The money would help replace an obsolete meter system, improve electricity distribution and reliability, enhance customer service and meet inflated costs of labor and materials.

The proposed increase is on top of a 34 percent hike in electricity supply costs that started Jan. 1.

Customers can either choose their own electricity supplier or accept the Maine Public Utilities Commission’s standard offer electricity supply. A utility bill contains both supply costs and Versant Power’s distribution costs. The standard offer accounts for about 60 percent of the customer’s total bill.

In November, the commission set new standard offer prices for Versant Power’s Maine Public District in Aroostook County and the Bangor Hydro District.

For Aroostook customers, the standard offer rose in January from 11.08 cents per kilowatt hour to 14.88 cents, an increase of about 34 percent. That meant average customers using 500 kilowatt hours per month saw their total bills rise nearly $19, from about $103 to $122, according to the commission’s rate announcement.

Bangor Hydro customers saw their standard offer rate rise from 11.68 cents per kilowatt hour to 16.44 cents, with a total bill hike of 21 percent, or about $24 per month, to $138.55. The district includes most of Penobscot County and Hancock, Piscataquis and Washington counties.

Next week the Maine Public Utilities Commission will hold a Central Maine Power case hearing on April 6 at 4 p.m. for similar rate increases. The public can attend in person or remotely through Teams.

Correction: The story has been amended to correct the origins of Central Maine Power owner AVANGRID and the distribution percentage increase.