Utilities make up the lion’s share of Craig Patel’s cost of doing business at his Wash Tub II laundromat on Forest Avenue in Portland, so the thought of electricity prices shooting up in January sends a shiver down his spine.

“It’s a big part of our costs,” Patel said, “and obviously, it’s going to cost us.”

By some estimates, the supply portion of Mainers’ electricity bills – typically covering about 40 percent of the total – will rise by 60 to 80 percent in January.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission will meet next week to go over  generators’ bids to supply “standard offer” electricity that will set the market price for power most Mainers use. However, increases in the cost of producing electricity, including high natural gas prices, have led analysts to predict that rates will have to climb starting Jan. 1.

Patel thought he was ahead of the game a year ago, when he switched the dryers in his laundromat to natural gas. But water, sewer and electricity bills for his washers remain the biggest utility bills he faces each month and he worries about the impact of higher electricity bills.

He’s been able to hold the line the last few years on what he charges customers to do their laundry, but Patel said a big jump in electricity may mean he has to pass those higher costs on.

“January 1st, we may have to (raise prices). It depends on how electricity plays out,” Patel said, noting that resisting increasing his prices “is getting tougher and tougher.”

Rising rates are likely to put a bite on the budgets of small-business owners like Patel and residents who also are likely to face higher bills for home heating oil and natural gas to keep their houses warm. However, many of the groups that offer help to those residents say their programs for assistance are in solid shape entering the winter.

GROUPS OFFER HELP

“We’ve been fully anticipating these rising costs … (and) we’re in a real good position to help people,” said Scott Thistle, spokesman for the Maine State Housing Authority.

Thistle said that residents who turn to social service agencies for help paying their heating bills are asked if they also are struggling with utility bills. The housing authority will help those residents get on a payment plan and then dip into a state fund to pay off the balance. That fund currently has nearly $8 million for utility assistance, he said, and that’s on top of nearly $40 million that is coming from the federal government to help low-income residents pay their heating bills.

Central Maine Power Co. also works with social service agencies to help people with their electric bills. The increase expected this winter is due to higher prices charged by energy generators and not CMP, which bills for the cost of delivering electricity, not the generation costs.

CMP wants to make sure that customers can keep up with their bills, said Linda Ball, the utility’s vice president of customer service.

The utility and government programs provide a variety of methods to help, Ball said. For instance, one program helps those who are eligible for heating aid handle past due electric bills. Qualified customers can get on a program to pay each month’s bill as it comes due and CMP will credit a portion of that payment to the past due balance.

Ball, however, said that many customers are reluctant to deal with past due bills and put off calling CMP to see what help is available.

“Give us a call, we’ll have a chat and we can walk you through what we can do,” she said.

CMP also has a couple of methods that allow customers to check regularly on their electricity usage that allows them to modify their usage, “so that at the end of the month, you don’t get sticker shock,” Ball said, and another program that supplies customers with regular updates on energy use by text, email or a phone call.

HARDSHIP FOR SOME CONSUMERS

Consumers say an increase in electricity rates will cause financial hardship for many, who are already coping with a huge increase in consumer prices.

The proposed supply rate increase won’t cause a financial hardship for Peter Freilinger, but the Scarborough resident said he knows of several families whose finances will be squeezed by a rate increase. He said consumer price increases, which soared 6.2 percent in the past year, are putting a severe strain on families.

“The combined impact of this on top of general cost increases is affecting families I know, and this increase and associated increases in heating oil and propane costs may be a straw that breaks the back,” Freilinger said in an email. He also doesn’t believe the increase will affect how Mainer’s use electricity because the “Mainers I know aren’t wasting electricity.”

Dave Anderson uses a rooftop solar system, which provides him with the electricity he needs for his home in Waterboro. But he still has to pay $13 a month to CMP for connection fees. Anderson said he knows elderly people living on fixed incomes, “who will definitely suffer” from any increase on their electric bills. He said consumer price increases are hurting many Maine families, adding this is not the time to be increasing electricity bills.

“This is a bad time for electricity rates to increase because many Mainers have been switching to heat pumps,” Anderson said. “On the bright side it may prompt more people to seek community solar or install residential solar. Renewable rates are fixed, unlike fossil fuels which are a commodity.”

Maine’s U.S. senators said they also are working to try to address Mainer’s rising electricity costs. Sen. Susan Collins used her position on the Senate Appropriations Committee to help steer $35 million in low-income heating assistance to Maine this year. And Collins and Sen. Angus King have urged the Biden administration to cut liquefied natural gas exports to help keep a cap on domestic natural gas prices – which are responsible for much of the expected increase in electric rates in Maine.

King recently won a commitment from an Energy Department official to make sure the impact on domestic natural gas prices is taken when the government considers whether to license exports of liquefied natural gas.

LED LIGHTBULBS

Efficiency Maine, a quasi-state agency, provides a number of discount programs that are aimed at getting Mainers to use less electricity. For instance, it works with retailers to provide discounts on energy-efficient LED lightbulbs and rebate programs for higher-efficiency electric water heaters.

Michael Stoddard, executive director for the agency, said the easiest and most effective way to cut electric bills is to use LED lightbulbs.

Last year, Mainers used the agency’s programs to save 175 million kilowatt hours and the lifetime savings for the various products it helps underwrite is $245 million, Stoddard said.

He said Efficiency Maine also helps businesses and institutions, such as schools, cut energy use and save money.

“That’s going to be pretty important as we move into this era of higher electricity costs,” he said.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this story

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