Home and small-businesses customers served by Central Maine Power Co. can sign up now for a new rate plan that offers lower costs for using electricity at night and on weekends.

The so-called time-of-use plan rewards people who can shift their use of energy-sucking appliances, such as washing machines, clothes dryers and electric water heaters, to periods when there’s less demand on the regional power grid.

People who can do that can save money, compared to the state’s standard offer service, or the growing list of competitive energy providers. How much they can save would depend on several factors, including how much electricity they use, and at what times of day.

State regulators say Mainers should take a careful look at how they use electricity now, and be realistic about their ability to change their habits. They also should recognize that time-of-use rates penalize customers who use power between 7 am and 8 pm on weekdays, that the rates change monthly, and that they are set to rise next winter.

“If you an average customer and wind up moving in the wrong direction, you could pay more,” said Tom Welch, the PUC chair.

Customers who are interested in exploring this option are being encouraged to request their current usage information from a form on CMP’s website.

They can enroll between now and Jan. 31, either online or by calling CMP.

Dynamic pricing isn’t a new idea for utilities. Large businesses are routinely charged at different rates during various times of the day. But the advent of smart electric meters, and appliances that can be programmed to operate at different times, are making it easier for customers to manage electricity use and costs.

“This puts the consumer in control,” said John Carroll, a CMP spokesman.

CMP’s new smart meters record when power is being used, and customers can see this information compiled online.

Customers who choose the new time-of-use rates must determine whether they will beat the standard offer rate, which is how most Mainers receive their power, or the rates being offered by several competitive energy providers, such as Electricity Maine, Gulf Electricity and Dead River Co.

The optional “time-of-use” rates are in effect for one year, beginning March 1. They reflects the fact that the cost of power varies throughout the day, and is less during off-peak periods, when demand is lower and fewer generators are needed.

The rates in the new time-of-use plan change each month. By comparison, the standard offer rate remains constant for a year, and will be roughly 6.8 cents per kilowatt hour beginning in March.

In March, the time of use rate for power consumed between 8 pm and 7 am will be 5.2 cents per kilowatt hour, which is 1.6 cents below the standard offer. But for power used between 7 am and 8 pm, the rate is higher than the standard offer, at nearly 8 cents.

By February 2014, the off-peak rate is set to rise to roughly 7 cents, and the on-peak rate will be more than 10 cents. That’s because wholesale power producers expect the price of natural gas, used to generate electricity in New England, to rise.

Because of these variable, Welch said he’s anxious to see how many people are interested in the new time-of-use option.

“We’re not forcing it on anyone,” he said. “We want to see what happens.”

If the current interest on competitive energy providers is any indication, Mainers will change their habits to save money on their electric bills, Carroll said. The growing availability of smart appliances that can automatically vary their consumption, such as programmable air conditioners, will make it easier for customers to take advantage of time-of-use rates, he said.

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