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February 3, 2022

Mills proposes bill aimed at improving accountability for Maine's electric utilities

Courtesy / Versant Power Versant Power, whose linemen are shown at work, and Central Maine Power could face stricter oversight under legislation unveiled by Gov. Janet Mills.

Gov. Janet Mills is proposing legislation that calls for harsher penalties for utilities providing substandard service and sets a process for the forced divestiture of their assets if needed to another company or a consumer-owned utility.

The legislation calls for new, quarterly service reports and imposes harsher penalties for poor service. It also calls for new financial audits, improved whistleblower protections and improved efforts of utilities to prepare for and respond to climate change.

The governor said the bill would protect the interests of Maine ratepayers, improve the operation and service of Maine’s electric utilities, and increase oversight and accountability of them.

The measure comes as efforts to create a consumer-owned electric utility in Maine failed to gather enough signatures for a ballot initiative this year and would continue to collect names for an attempt in 2023.

The proposed legislation would require that the Maine Public Utilities Commission to establish minimum standards of service that utilities must deliver for Maine ratepayers. The legislation also empowers the PUC with enhanced authority to crack down on utilities that do not meet these standards by imposing harsher penalties and, if necessary, even forcing the sale of the utility for inadequate service.

“Whether it’s poor customer service, billing problems, or extended power outages, the issues experienced by Maine people over the past several years have made clear that Maine doesn’t have the tools it needs to hold our utilities accountable. It’s time for that to change,” Mills said in a statement.

“The bill strengthens electric utility regulation of Maine by filling in some glaring gaps in the statutes regulating Maine utilities,” said Bill Harwood, the state's public advocate.

The legislation requires the PUC to set minimum standards for safe, reasonable, and adequate service to Maine customers. It then requires the PUC to issue quarterly reports on whether a utility is meeting these minimum standards. These reports will address utility operations, customer service, such as billing, and initiatives to combat climate change, such as interconnecting to solar projects.

If these quarterly reports determine that a utility is consistently failing to meet this standard, then the legislation requires the PUC to impose new, higher administrative penalties — up to $1 million or 10 percent of the utility’s annual revenue — to force the utility to improve service.

The legislation also establishes a process under which the PUC determines whether an electric utility is unfit to provide safe, adequate, and reliable service at just and reasonable rates to Maine ratepayers.

If the PUC determines that sale of the utility is necessary to protect the interests of ratepayers, it will then invite bids from qualified buyers and select the purchase proposal that provides the most benefits to customers in the form of better service and lower rates at a fair purchase price.

The legislation also says that in the event the PUC invites bids from qualified buyers, it must also consider a bid to create a consumer-owned, quasi-municipal corporation for the purpose of purchasing the utility. This creates a mechanism whereby the PUC could evaluate whether an investor-owned utility or a consumer-owned utility is in the best interests of the state.

"Versant Power expects to be held to a high standard and is continuously working to improve service to our customers. We work every day to meet the challenge of providing safe, reliable delivery of electricity in a cost-effective way. We want to be a trusted partner in achieving Maine’s energy goals, and we will review the governor’s bill carefully to look for ways we can continue our work to meet customers’ evolving needs and expectations," Versant said in a statement.

Central Maine Power Co., owned by Connecticut-based Avangrid Inc. (NYSE: AGR), said it did not believe the legislation was necessary.

"The PUC already has the necessary tools and has used them to hold utilities accountable. Additionally, this proposal doesn’t provide protections for all Maine electric, gas, telephone and cable customers, does nothing to address electricity supply prices, which grew by 83% this year, or address the real cause of climate change. We look forward to providing input to the Maine legislature on our progress," CMP said in a statement.

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