The upward trend in wholesale natural gas and electricity prices in New England will begin to hit retail consumers later this summer, based on the bids accepted today by the Maine Public Utilities Commission for standard offer electricity service.
Following Maine’s deregulation of the electric power industry, transmission and distribution utilities no longer sell electricity but merely provide wires enabling the delivery of power. For their energy needs, customers may choose among licensed competitive electricity providers, or may receive so-called “standard offer service” by default. Most residential consumers receive standard offer service, while more than half of the load of medium and large commercial and industrial customers is served by customer-selected competitive providers.
The providers of standard offer service, and the prices customers pay for standard offer service, are selected by the Maine Public Utilities Commission through a competitive process. In deliberations this afternoon, the Commission established new prices for standard offer electricity supply service for medium commercial and industrial customers of Maine’s two largest utilities, Central Maine Power Co. and Bangor Hydro Electric Co. Over a six-month term starting on September 1, 2013, Central Maine Power’s medium commercial and industrial customers taking standard offer service will pay an average price of 7.5 cents/kWh. Bangor Hydro customers will pay 7.45 cents/kWh. These new prices are over 23% higher than current standard offer prices for these customers, and are between 17% and 19% higher compared to last year’s standard offer pricing.
Why have these prices gone up? One explanation is that suppliers are pricing the recent upward trend in regional wholesale natural gas and electricity prices into their retail bids. Wholesale electricity pricing in New England is generally set by the price of natural gas. Despite the availability of low-cost natural gas throughout most of the country, peak demands for natural gas in New England for heating and for electric power generation exceed the capability of the natural gas pipeline network to deliver gas into the region. As a result, the wholesale price of natural gas – and electricity – spikes as demand for gas increases. Based on last winter's experience with this phenomenon, retail electricity suppliers are expecting similar high wholesale prices this winter, and are increasing their retail rate bids accordingly.
One solution that could keep downward pressure on the cost of natural gas and electricity is expanded pipeline infrastructure to enable a balance between supply and demand for natural gas deliveries into New England. New England states are working to promote this solution, which could save consumers over $1 billion per year. Until then, the likelihood is for continued upward pressure on wholesale electricity prices, and corresponding upward jumps in the retail price consumers pay for electricity as evidenced by the new standard offer prices.