Summit Natural Gas of Maine is proposing a rate increase of up to 200% over the next seven years, a move the state Office of the Public Advocate is opposing and asking the Public Utilities Commission to deny.

The increase would add $27.28, or 16%, to an average residential customer’s bill in 2023, the first year of the proposed rate plan, according to Summit Utilities Communications Lead Cassandra Webb.

Summit, which serves about 2,400 customers in Falmouth, Yarmouth and Cumberland, asked the PUC to approve the rate plan in March.

“This proposal to triple Summit’s rates over seven years is one of the largest rate increases ever proposed by a Maine public utility,” Public Advocate William Harwood said in a press release. “If approved, it would impose a terrible financial burden on Summit’s customers.”

Webb said that “significant costs to deliver service” are not covered by current rates.

She said the Maine Office of the Public Advocate “is basing their claims on an assumption that Summit will make a maximum allowable increase each year of the plan, regardless of the competitive fuels landscape and other factors.”

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“The approach we proposed to our regulators is an initial rate adjustment at the start of a seven-year rate plan that provides Summit the flexibility to adjust rates, but does not require us to do so,” Webb said.

After the average 16% increase in the first year of the proposal, “flexibility in years two through seven will allow Summit to continue to serve our customers safely and reliably as we continue to grow,” she said.

Other utilities “presumably, can, and will, also increase their rates at some point over the next seven years,” she said.

A typical residential Summit customer pays about $170 per month, while customers of the other three Maine natural gas utilities, Bangor Natural Gas, Maine Natural Gas Company and Unitil, pay an average of $90-$120 per month, according to the Office of the Public Advocate. If the proposed increase is approved, the average Summit monthly bill could increase over seven years to about $350 per month, more than 300% above the current rates of the other three Maine natural gas utilities, according to the office.

The Office of the Public Advocate has asked the PUC to hold evening hearings in Summit’s coverage areas to give more customers the opportunity to be heard.

The PUC will discuss the process for the case “sometime in the next few weeks,” according to its media liaison, Susan Faloon. Those meeting agendas and livestreams can be found at maine.gov/mpuc.

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In the case documents for Summit’s increase request available on the PUC’s website, there are five public comments, three of which are from Cumberland customers. All five customers oppose the rate increase.

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In reviewing Summit Natural Gas’ giant increase request … I note that there are no provisions for reduced rate for us seniors who live in senior housing and are living on Social Security only,” one Cumberland customer wrote. “My wife is 85 and I am 87 and we live in senior housing in Cumberland Housing. I hope that the State of Maine PUC will take this into consideration.”

Another customer wrote that they believe Summit used “deception in selling their services” and the cost of natural gas has far exceeded what they were originally paying for oil. Other customers said the increase is a result of poor planning and business management and the PUC should now protect consumers who “in good faith, invested in natural gas.”

Webb said that throughout the nine-month rate proceeding, the public, the OPA and the PUC “will have ample opportunity to provide thoughtful input” and Summit “looks forward to working collaboratively with all parties, including the towns of Yarmouth, Falmouth, and Cumberland.”

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