Electricity rates drop 13 percent

In a surprise move that delighted electricity consumers throughout the state, the Maine Public Utilities Commission lowered the standard offer rate for customers of Central Maine Power Co. through December. Citing plummeting oil costs and a volatile energy market, regulators set the rate at 6.54 cents per kilowatt hour – about a penny less than current rates. The new rate, which takes effect in March, applies to homeowners and small businesses that are served by CMP. Mid-size businesses are expected to also catch a break in their standard offer rates this spring. Read the story.

Maine lags in hiring foreign tech workers

An analysis by the Portland Press Herald shows Maine lags the rest of the country in using foreign workers to fill highly technical jobs. Applications in Maine for the H1-B visa program, created to fill skill gaps in the domestic workforce and allow U.S. employers to seek the best and brightest workers worldwide, are roughly one-third the national average. Within jobs categories that rely on workers with proficiency in science, technology, engineering and math, the rate drops to one-half the national average. Government and business leaders attribute the disinterest to a small critical mass of technology-oriented companies and lower prevailing wages among the reasons. Read the story.

Most of Mainers ‘unserved’ by broadband

ConnectME, the state agency that oversees broadband in Maine, revised its definition of high-speed Internet access on Friday. As a result, nearly 80 percent of Maine households don’t have access to speedy broadband.

The authority adopted a 10 megabits per second upload and download benchmark, which only 20 percent of Maine households have access to. The previous standard was 1.5 megabits. The change is expected to help emphasize how far the state has to go to reach transmission speeds generally available in the U.S., and to promote the need for more funding ConnectME grants. More than a dozen bills in this legislative session address increased funding for high-speed Internet connections. Read the story.

Gas prices drop below $2 per gallon

For the first time since 2009, the sale price of gasoline has dropped below $2 per gallon. Although the average price statewide on Jan. 11 was $2.27 per gallon, stations in southern Maine were selling regular gas at $1.99 and others were expected to follow suit. A year ago, the average price was $3.53 per gallon, according to the American Automobile Association. Read the story.

Staples customers warned to check records

An investigation by Staples Inc. into a data breach showed prompted warnings that shoppers who made purchases in two Maine stores – one in Biddeford and the other in Brunswick – should check their credit and debit accounts for suspicious activity. The office supply store said the breach occurred between Aug. 10 and Sept. 16, 2014. The results of its internal investigation were released just before Christmas. The company estimates 1.16 million payment cards were exposed to potential theft. Read the story.

No decision on Bucksport mill sale

On Tuesday, a federal judge has declined to issue a decision in a lawsuit filed by a Bucksport machinists’ union to halt the sale of the Verso paper mill in that town to a metal recycler. Judge Woodcock did not render a decision in the case, a move interpreted by the union plaintiffs as an indication that he needs more time to consider the anti-trust basis of the complaint. Union members are hoping the judge will issue an injunction that will create an opportunity for another buyer of the mill to be found – one who would continue the paper-making operation and preserve more than 500 local jobs. The owners of the mill announced in December that they intended to sell the mill to AIM Development, a metal recycler, citing years of unprofitability at the mill. Read the story.

Aquaculture industry attracting new investors

Maine’s growing aquaculture industry is finding it easier to attract private investors. A forum on R&D in aquaculture on Wednesday hosted in Portland drew more than 100 investors, researchers and industry officials. Several investors said the emergence of Maine’s fish farms represents a sustainable way to meet the rising global demand for food. The forum was part of a three-day regional conference on aquaculture in the Northeast. Maine’s sector, which has been seeing an average production increase of 8 percent annually for the past decade, has attracted interest from private equity investors who are see growing markets for fish raised in farms. Maine’s aquaculture industry reports sales of between $50 million and $100 million annually, attributed primarily to sales of salmon, oysters and mussels. Read the story.

Nova Star ferry sets sail for South Carolina

The Nova Star ferry left its berth in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, for a warmer clime in South Carolina. The ferry, which ended a financially troubling first year of service shuttling passengers between Portland and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, will save maintenance costs by staying in warmer waters. Operators of the ferry say they are still trying to line up a winter route for the ferry to generate more revenue for the service, which received $25 million from the Canadian government, but industry analysts say prospects are slim. Read the story.

Global shifts provide boost to Maine builders

Local contractors are starting to see a drop in the cost of building materials, reflecting a weakening global appetite for products made from copper and petroleum. The price of copper dropped 14 percent in 2014 and another 10 percent so far this year. Likewise, crude oil is half the price it was at this point last year. Builders say dropping prices mean savings for consumers, and predict robust activity as soon as the snow melts in both single-family and commercial construction. Read the story.

Delegation protests subsidy of Nova Scotia paper mill

Maine’s congressional delegation has appealed to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to become involved in what they perceive as the Canadian government’s unfair subsidy of a paper mill in Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia. Maine’s two senators and U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin sent a letter to Penny Pritzer, commerce secretary, asking her to address the issue. In their letter, they say the government’s support of the mill exceeds $125 million and gives it an unfair market advantage, a situation that influenced the decision to shut down the Madison Paper Industries mill in Madison for two weeks. Read the story.

Annual ag show draws thousands

How to obtain a commercial kitchen license was one of the many topics explored at the 74th Maine Agricultural Trades Show in Augusta this week. Thousands of people attended the three-day event where educational sessions were offered concurrently with an open exhibition hall of more than 100 organizations and businesses offering goods and services for the state’s farming community. Hundreds of new licenses are issued each year in Maine, which has about 7,000 existing home and commercial food processing licenses. Read the story.