September 18, 2012

Gulf getting into Maine electricity business

Gulf Electricity will compete with Electricity Maine, the Auburn power supplier and FairPoint Energy, a subsidiary of the telephone company.

By Tux Turkel
Staff Writer

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Over the next several months, Mainers will have new options that can marginally lower their electric bills, as well as signal their support for wind, hydro and other green-power generators.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

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Comparing Maine Electricity Supply Costs

(Assumes Central Maine Power home customer using 521 kilowatt hours a month, which is the average residential power consumption, according to the Maine Public Utilities Commission.)

Maine Public Utilities Commission standard offer: $38.55
Electricity Maine: $36.99
Gulf Electricity: $36.41
Maine Green Power: $46.05

Source: Portland Press Herald research

The Maine Green Power program, which is just ramping up, is charging 1.5 cents per kilowatt hour more than the standard-offer rate, or a 16 percent premium. That means the average home customer would pay an extra $7.50 a month to match their electricity use with green power.

"It's an interesting experiment," Welch said. "We'll see whether people will vote with their dollars for a particular principle."

The time-of-use program will start next March. Supplier bids are just going out, so there's no way to know how much of a discount will be available. The program may appeal to people who can run their washing machines and dishwashers when demand is low on the power grid. It also will cut the operational costs of thermal storage heaters, which can charge overnight.

The advent of smart meters for both CMP and Bangor Hydro-Electric customers eventually will allow homes to monitor rates and consumption online.

Both green power and time-of-use options have been available in the past in Maine, and were discontinued for various reasons.

Sustained public interest in the current array of options may hinge on marketing.

Energy suppliers have switched many big businesses to the competitive market in Maine, but have balked at the high cost of gaining and servicing home customers.

Reaching people through the Internet and social media sites such as Facebook has lowered those costs, Welch noted. Electricity Maine has had great success promoting its product online, and using proprietary billing software to service customers. It holds drawings that offer customers free electricity for a year, and partners with businesses for employee benefits. More recently, it has been buying advertising featuring a former Portland television news anchor.

Gulf Electricity has similar plans. It also may use its gas stations for cross promotion, perhaps by offering electricity customers discounts when they fill up.

"We may be able to do things in Maine differently than they can," said Dery, the Gulf vice president.

As with any product or service, though, it's up to customers to shop around and compare prices and claims.

For instance, Gulf Electricity's website says: "Depending on your state, you could save 15 percent on energy versus the regulated utility supply. This could be $200 a year."

But in Maine, the average home's savings now are actually closer to $25 a year, based on the current standard offer price and Gulf's one-year fixed rate.

Electricity Maine also has been imprecise with its numbers. In an interview this month with the Mainebiz newspaper, the company's co-founder, Kevin Dean, said the average homeowner can now save $5 a month. But based on today's 5 percent savings over the standard offer, the actual monthly savings is closer to $1.60.

Dean didn't return messages seeking comment for this story Monday.

Welch, the PUC chair, said his agency was in contact earlier in the year with Electricity Maine, over what appeared to be an offer that exaggerated savings compared to the standard offer for medium-sized business customers. He declined to discuss details but said the company modified its promotion.

"If you're going to make percentage claims, you should be able to back it up," Welch said.

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: 

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