Maine lawmakers grappled Tuesday with a vexing problem that’s emerging as a top concern among residents this winter: how to pay soaring energy bills.

Helping needy residents with their utility bills isn’t a new challenge, but especially high rates this winter are socking it to middle-income and working families, lawmakers said. And costs could also rise in the years ahead, as the state moves to electrify its economy to meet climate goals. That will require modernizing the electric grid to phase out fossil fuels in favor of renewable power.

To tackle both these immediate and future threats, Maine needs to take a holistic, strategic look at how to target relief now, and also ensure that electric rates are affordable for all households and businesses during the coming transition. That’s the rationale behind a proposed law that received a public hearing Tuesday before the legislative committee that handles energy and utility matters.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, would direct the Maine Public Advocate’s Office to convene a stakeholder group by September that represents a broad array of interests, including the state Public Utilities Commission, senior citizens, environmentalists and equal justice advocates. The group would identify methods for residents to better afford electricity as the state seeks to meet its renewable energy goals. It would seek ways to lower costs by reducing demand through weatherization and energy efficiency, as well as financial assistance programs.

The group would submit a report to the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee by Dec. 1.

The bill, L.D. 1913, also would direct the PUC to create an electric utility relief program for low-income residents by Nov. 1. It would provide retroactive benefits for late fees, arrearages and other costs incurred this winter, as well as future benefits determined by the PUC.

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People who receive existing state or federal low-income benefits or have a family income below 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines would be eligible. The latter provision would expand the number of residents eligible for relief.

The PUC also would work with the Efficiency Maine Trust to provide education and outreach on utility relief programs.

ENERGY ANXIETY

Judging from testimony Tuesday, there’s wide agreement on the need to do something. And it’s clear that a broad cross section of interest groups want a seat at the stakeholder table, including businesses, utilities and energy suppliers. But good intentions aside, no one could fully answer a pressing question: Where will the money come from?

Tuesday’s hearing was held as policymakers are struggling to respond to high energy bills and growing anxiety among ratepayers this winter.

It comes a week after Gov. Janet Mills proposed a one-time, $90 credit on electric bills for 90,000 or so low-income households using $8 million in federal money, and after the PUC held a hearing on expanding eligibility in a ratepayer-funded program that helps low-income residents pay their electric bills. The PUC is set to rule on that request Thursday.

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Maine already has a variety of programs aimed at helping low-income residents pay their energy bills and reduce their usage, some aided by federal funds. They include the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, aimed at heating costs; the Weatherization Assistance Program, run by the Maine Housing Authority, and the state’s Low Income Assistance Program, for help with electric bills and the subject of a PUC hearing last week.

Electric utilities Central Maine Power and Versant Power also offer “arrearage management” programs, which can forgive some past-due charges for low-income customers.

But demand for assistance is shaping up to be especially high this winter, as electric rates and oil and gas prices spike. The spike is driven by global increases in the wholesale prices of natural gas and petroleum. Those worldwide jumps, in turn, have pushed up fuel costs at power plants, oil and propane dealers and gasoline stations.

The crisis has sensitized politicians and policymakers to seek the sort of solutions reflected in Vitelli’s bill.

WHO PAYS FOR RELIEF?

Help would be welcomed by residents in Maine’s poorer, rural counties, said Rep. Steven Foster, R-Dexter. High electric rates are the top issue he hears about from constituents, since the PUC’s “standard offer” electric supply rate increased by 80 percent last month.

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But past energy legislation aimed at expanding solar power, for instance, has had the unintended consequence of raising rates, Foster said. Who will pay the cost of additional relief, he wondered: utility customers or taxpayers? Won’t it just have a “snowball effect” of hurting residents who are just getting by?

Those are important questions, agreed Bill Harwood, Maine’s recently confirmed public advocate. They’re especially pressing if Maine extends financial relief to residents who make more money than current eligibility guidelines allow, as envisioned in Vitelli’s bill.

The best option is to tap into federal money, Harwood said, as the state was able to do for the pending $90 electric bill credit. But other programs, such as the existing low-income electric bill assistance program, do rely on ratepayer surcharges. The goal, Harwood said, is to find the “sweet spot” at which a couple of dollars added to everyone’s electric bill can make a big difference for needy families that otherwise have to choose between paying their bill or buying food and medicine.

More broadly, Harwood said, Maine needs to reduce the volatile nature of the PUC’s standard offer electric supply bidding process, which locks in rates for a year and is subject to the timing and whims of global energy markets.

Neither of Maine’s dominant, investor-owned utilities, CMP and Versant, took a specific position on the bill. But both said they supported the goals of the proposed law.

Further action on the bill will take place in a yet-unscheduled work session.


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