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Maine's open electricity market can cost you

STATEWIDE (WGME) - Our long, cold winter means harsh utility bills for most of us. Maine law lets consumers and business owners shop around and pick their electricity provider, but before you do, we discover while you can save money, the switch can also cost you.

The Office of the Public Advocate keeps a list of provider prices so you can easily compare rates and the terms and conditions.

At Down-Home Cookin' in downtown Portland, Brenda Garland puts in long days to bring home the bacon. Her space is full of grills, ovens, and coolers.

"We use a lot of electricity. Utilities are a big part of our budget here obviously," Garland said.

Like many small business owners, Garland looked around for the best price. It's an option you have in Maine. Our state is one of 16 that's deregulated the energy market. While your electricity is delivered by Central Maine Power, you have a choice when it comes to what company supplies the power.

Garland got a price she liked on the open, competitive market with Glacial Energy. That price was fixed for a year.

"It's been great up until recently," Garland said.

Bills from Glacial Energy show the electricity to power the place was about $500 dollars a month, until last month, when the price per kilowatt hour more than tripled and so did Garland's bill; it was almost $1,500.

"When I opened that last bill, I'll be honest, I cried. It's just devastating. I'm not sure I can make that many chocolate chip cookies," Garland told us.

We took the concerns and the bills to the Public Utilities Commission.

"I would say that's not typical; I'd say that's pretty unusual," Chairman Tom Welch told us.

But there's nothing Welch can do about it. Electricity suppliers can charge whatever they want.

"The idea was to allow this kind of competition. You see what your options are, what the price is, and you make your decision," Welch explained.

If you decide not to shop around, you'll get the standard offer rate. The state sets that price for a year after collecting bids from suppliers. Our research found right now only two of the major seven electricity providers on Maine's open market have rates lower than the standard offer.

"People tend not to pay too much attention to the kilowatt per hour price. I never did" Garland said.

Her rate last month was almost three times the standard offer. She says she's filled out the paperwork with CMP to switch back.

Chairman Welch is reminding consumers to always check consumer contracts carefully.

"They should pay attention to how long that price is fixed, any other charges, and what happens at the end of the contract," Welch said.

Glacial Energy said it wouldn't be able to answer our questions or do an interview with us. The only insight into the big kilowatt per hour price increase comes from a message printed on Garland's bill.

"The recent cold weather has resulted in higher power pricing for energy providers across the country," the bill said.