Close to 94,000 Maine households that have fallen behind on electric bill payments can expect to see disconnection notices this spring and face even higher bills in July.

Central Maine Power already has sent out 62,000 disconnection notices since mid April, about 19 percent more than last year. Only 5 percent of customers who received the notices had power disconnected so far, but most have had it restored, a CMP spokesperson said.

While CMP sent out all of its notices already, Versant Power is rolling out its mailings gradually and will send out nearly 32,000 disconnection notices in all, Public Advocate William Harwood, the state’s ratepayer watchdog, said.

Rate increases are the main reason behind the high number of disconnection notices that went out this year to 13 percent of the state’s 700,000 residential customers, which he called an “extraordinary number.”

“It is simply an issue that the rates are high,” he said.

Versant has mailed more than 5,000 disconnection notices so far, 4,000 to residential customers and more than 1,000 to commercial customers. Some 56 customers have been disconnected since May 8, a company spokesperson said.

Utilities cannot cut off power without first getting permission from the Maine Public Utilities Commission during the winter season from Nov. 15 to April 15. CMP received a hefty $500,000 fine in 2020 for improperly mailing out disconnection notices.

The commission approved supply rate rises of about 40 percent on Jan. 1, due mostly to surging natural gas prices. Another big rise is expected July 1 when incentives for community solar programs get tacked onto bills. Harwood said many ratepayers are caught in a vicious cycle. 

He has appealed to regulators to cut some of the solar incentives so ratepayers are not shouldering such a high burden, a stand that has led the industry to criticize his office. He also wants more programs focused on helping consumers, especially low-income ones, learn how to use electricity as efficiently as possible.

Both major utilities have urged customers to get in touch with them to arrange payment plans. So far, Versant has set up 1,200 payment plans to help customers get caught up with their bills. 

CMP said it has distributed more than $4.7 million in assistance funding through the Electricity Lifeline Program, with more than $5 million still available for those who qualify. Gov. Janet Mills also has proposed expanding the Low-Income Assistance Program by $15 million.

“Having unpaid bills is stressful,” said Linda Ball, CMP’s vice president of customer service. “When past-due bills are taken care of, it benefits all customers, as the burden of unpaid balances is shared by all ratepayers.”