The Maine Public Utilities Commission approved a one-time $90 bill credit Thursday for roughly 90,000 low-income customers of Central Maine Power and Versant Power to help offset increased electricity supply rates.

“There’s no question this winter has hit a lot of Mainers very hard, and this relief that is being provided by outside sources with no adverse effect on other ratepayers I think is a win-win,” said commission Chair Philip L. Bartlett during a meeting Thursday morning.

The commission voiced unanimous support for the one-time credit, which is expected to be applied to qualifying customers’ accounts automatically this March. It will be paid for by the Maine State Housing Authority using funds from the Home Energy Assistance Program, or HEAP, for low-income residents.

The action is an emergency response by state officials to soaring electric bills this winter, linked to an 80 percent hike in the PUC-approved “standard offer” electricity supply rates for CMP and Versant customers that took effect Jan. 1. The rate increases were triggered largely by spikes in the wholesale price of natural gas, which is used by power plants to generate roughly half of New England’s electricity.

For CMP’s residential customers, the higher pricing is expected to translate to an average $30 increase in their monthly bills.

The Governor’s Energy Office, the Maine Public Advocate’s Office and MaineHousing worked with CMP, Versant and other parties in recent weeks to develop the relief plan. It will use $8 million of federal money to provide a one-time, $90 bill credit to roughly 90,000 low-income households at or below 150 percent of federal poverty guidelines.



State officials and representatives of CMP and Versant applauded the PUC’s decision.

“I thank the PUC for its unanimous approval of this rate relief plan, which will deliver meaningful support to low-income Maine people who are disproportionately impacted by these costs,” Gov. Janet Mills said in a statement. “While this is a welcome step forward, my administration will continue to evaluate ways that we can provide relief to more people across the state as they grapple with these increased costs driven by Maine’s overreliance on fossil fuels, especially natural gas.”

Joseph Purington, president and chief executive of CMP, echoed Mills’ sentiments in a company news release issued following the approval.

“Mainers helping Mainers in a time of need is part of our culture,” Purington said. “We appreciate the collaboration … to develop this program for Mainers who could use a helping hand, and are grateful to MaineHousing for gaining approval to use federal funds to cover the cost so there is no impact on other customers.”

Judy Long, communications manager for Versant, also lauded the PUC’s decision.


“We’re pleased to have come up with something to help some of those customers who are suffering because of the dramatic change,” Long said. “We want to urge customers if they’re having trouble paying their bills to reach out and try to work with us, because we can help identify ways to better manage their electricity bills.”

The state Department of Health and Human Services will work with CMP and Versant to identify eligible customers. Credits will be applied to those account balances by March 30 with no action needed by the customer.

The bill credit program will be administered by MaineHousing using federal HEAP funds. Specifically, the money is part of a $55 million supplemental payment Maine received from the American Rescue Plan Act, according to the agency. That means there will be no reduction in heating assistance money to fund the bill credit.

In comments filed for the case, both CMP and Versant estimated how many of their customers would qualify for the credit, based on DHHS data and participation in their low-income assistance programs.

CMP estimated 72,715 customers would be eligible, at a cost of around $6.5 million. Versant calculated 16,300 customers, at a rough cost of $1.5 million.



In making the request to the PUC, the energy office and public advocate called it a modest attempt to partially address a bigger, long-term problem.

“We do not propose that this program serve as a precedent for future ratemaking,” they said in written comments. “Instead, we look forward to working with the commission and its staff to identify and pursue long-term strategies for relieving low income customers of the burden of rising energy costs.”

One strategy they flagged is an ongoing effort to provide rebates for installing high-efficiency heat pumps. The devices use electricity, but typically produce heat at lower cost than the oil or gas units found in many Maine homes.

The supply rate increases come at a time of year when electricity usage, and thus bills, are already high. Both CMP and Versant said they are aware of the challenge to customers and want to work with them.

“We encourage all customers who are facing challenges in paying their bills to give us a call to discuss an affordable plan and any assistance available,” said Purington, CMP’s chief executive.

The company said it has been actively reaching out to customers through email, mail and on social media to raise awareness of payment plan options, tools to manage energy use and sources of bill assistance for those who qualify. Customers can also review available options on CMP’s website.


Versant has a budget billing program that allows customers to pay a steady rate based on monthly averages, offering an alternative to billing spikes caused by seasonal changes in energy usage.

“Trying to introduce some predictability and giving customers an option that helps them manage their budget we think might be something that is helpful,” Long said.

The unusual nature of the bill credit was highlighted in comments filed with the PUC by the Industrial Energy Consumer Group. The group, which represents several large manufacturers in Maine, characterized the program as “a mere small and temporary band-aid.”

The group said that while it typically opposes one class of customers subsidizing another to provide a societal benefit, the credit is modest, for a short duration and isn’t being borne by other ratepayers.

Staff Writer Tux Turkel contributed to this story.

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