Electricity Maine burst out of the gate 18 months ago trumpeting electric rates lower than the standard offer.

Now the state is looking into whether some claims became false advertising.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission has asked the Auburn company whether it ran radio ads saying, “If your power bill says standard offer, you’re paying too much,” even after a new, lower standard offer took effect March 1. Two of Electricity Maine’s three rate plans are higher than the new standard offer.

It also asks the company to show how customers “will save nearly $7 million in 2013,” as the PUC says is mentioned in Electricity Maine promotions.

Mitchell Tannenbaum, deputy general counsel at the PUC, called the questions an informal review after PUC staffers heard Electricity Maine ads on radio and TV.

“What we’re interested in is whether their promotions and their activities are reasonable or whether they’re deceptive, whether customers understand what’s going on in this newly created market,” Tannenbaum said.

Emile Clavet, who owns Electricity Maine with Kevin Dean, said Thursday that the company’s aim had shifted: from pledges to always beat the standard offer to new plans that offer longer-term stability with a charitable element of giving back.

In August 2011, shortly after Electricity Maine’s launch, Clavet told the Sun Journal: “We will always beat the standard offer. You’ll never, ever pay more than the standard offer, or we won’t be back.”

Clavet said Thursday, “The change in strategy is to always remain competitive, not just in one standard offer period. We did not anticipate such a rapid drop in prices from competition and we did not anticipate such a rapid increase in prices from natural gas prices going up. Now we are having to respond.”

Tannenbaum said the PUC wants more details about the timing of ad campaigns and more details about the company’s automatic renewal policies: After a year, were customers warned they might be moved onto new, more expensive plans, and did that happen?

Electricity Maine has more than 150,000 customers in Maine and New Hampshire and is one of several competitive energy providers licensed by the PUC. Consumers in Maine have had a choice in their power supplier since 2000, but for a long stretch didn’t have many options beyond the standard offer. Electricity Maine was credited with courting the consumer market and highlighting choice.

Its current plans: MaineStrong, an 18-month fixed rate at 7.58 cents per kilowatt-hour; MaineSafe, a 12-month fixed rate at 7.78 cents/kWh; and MaineSaver, a six-month fixed rate at 6.8 cents/kWh.

The current standard offer price for residential Central Maine Power customers, set by the PUC after a bid process: 6.826 cents/kWh from March 2013 to February 2014.

The former standard offer was 7.5 cents.

“In the world of electricity, half a penny or so is a lot,” said Eric Bryant, senior counsel at the Maine Public Advocate’s Office, which is watching the back and forth between the PUC and Electricity Maine.

He said 180,000 CMP customers have chosen something other than the standard offer. The biggest alternative has been Electricity Maine.

“It’s not a regulated product anymore, it’s competitive, which means Electricity Maine can change what it’s offering at any given time,” Bryant said. He encouraged consumers to “read before you sign, understand what you’re signing up for and do the math to figure out whether it’s something that even makes sense for you.”

Tannenbaum said the PUC’s next steps depend on Electricity Maine’s response. The company could address all concerns or commissioners could open an investigation.

Clavet said he expected his lawyer to answer the PUC questions soon. He said the company’s new Power to Help campaign, which emphasizes local jobs and gives a portion of revenue to local charities, has donated thousands.

The $7 million in savings, he said, is not projected in 2013 but through 2013.

“I think what the public doesn’t understand is that they’ve been living with tremendous volatility all along,” Clavet said. “You can’t eliminate risk in the electric supply portion of your bill. All you can do is manage it.”

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