Maine Public Advocate: A tough winter calls for more assistance with utility bills

Roughly 70,000 low-income Maine households need help to pay their electric bills, but fewer than half of them receive financial assistance under the current Low-Income Assistance Program, and, for those who will receive the benefit, it’s insufficient to make electricity affordable to most recipients. With winter looming and energy costs rising, that statistic cannot stand.

“To address the immediate needs of low-income ratepayers, the Office of Public Advocate has just submitted an emergency request to the PUC for a temporary increase of low-income benefits this winter,” Maine Public Advocate William S. Harwood writes. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer, File

Now is when we button up our homes and prepare to hunker down for a long, cold winter. This year, with extraordinarily high energy prices, too many families risk being cold to the point of being unsafe. The high costs of home heating fuel and electricity will impose financial misery on many of us, especially low-income households.

In response to increased natural gas prices, the Public Utilities Commission has just announced a large increase of approximately 49% in the standard offer supply price for Central Maine Power customers and on average, a 35% increase for Versant Power customers. The standard offer price applies to the supply portion of the utility bill, not the utility’s charge for delivering the electricity. Unfortunately, getting the storm windows on and plugging up drafty corners will not pay these high energy bills.

Last spring, the Legislature recognized that substantial increases in the standard offer were coming and wisely created the electric ratepayer advisory council to study the issue of the affordability of electricity service in Maine. The council, which includes 18 members with a wide range of expertise and experience, has just issued its first annual report to the Legislature. Based on extensive research and analysis regarding the affordability of electricity, the 44-page report includes 17 formal recommendations for legislative and regulatory action to provide additional assistance for low-income ratepayers.

To ensure that electricity is affordable (typically measured as less than 4% of household income), Maine needs to increase annual assistance from its current level of approximately $17 million to approximately $60 million. The council’s primary recommendation is to fully fund the financial assistance needed to make electricity affordable for every low-income ratepayer within a reasonable period.

Specific recommendations to begin the transition to achieving full affordability include:

• Gradually increasing funding and concentrating initial funding increases on the most needy households; adding new standard offer sources for Low-Income Assistance Program funding.

• Streamlining Low-Income Assistance Program enrollment and minimizing the costs of administering the program.

• Promoting the efficient use of electricity in low-income households.

As important as these recommendations are for the long term, they will not provide relief to struggling consumers this winter.

To address the immediate needs of low-income ratepayers, the Office of Public Advocate has just submitted an emergency request to the PUC for a temporary increase of low-income benefits this winter.

Specifically, the Office of Public Advocate is requesting a $75 bill credit in January for all low-income customers currently enrolled in the Low-Income Assistance Program.

This will offset the first three months of the approximately $25-per-month increase in the standard offer price that will take effect Jan. 1. Hopefully, this relief will help get these low-income ratepayers through a tough winter burdened with the increase in the standard offer price.

Mainers are a caring and compassionate group. We recognize that we are all in this together, and we cannot leave our most vulnerable neighbors to survive high winter energy costs alone. They should not be put in the position of choosing between paying their utility bills and buying needed food or medicine for their families. I am hopeful that, working together with strong leadership in Augusta, we can provide the needed relief.

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