Maine Public Utilities Commission chairman Tom Welch said on Wednesday that he plans to step down at year’s end, two years before his term expires.

He is known in New England energy circles as the leading architect of deregulating the electric industry in Maine in the 1990s and as a strong advocate for expanding natural gas capacity in the state.

He was appointed chairman in April of 2011 by Gov. Paul LePage. The Public Utilities Commission regulates the electricity, telecommunications, gas and water providers in Maine. It has been pivotal in determining the growth of utilities throughout the state, including the emerging wind power industry.

Welch, who just turned 65, said in a statement that he was retiring for personal reasons.

“I will be leaving the MPUC December 31,” he said. “I don’t have any plans, except a long-delayed trip to New Zealand and Australia this coming winter, in part to visit members of my wife’s family.

“I have no work plans at all, although I understand there may be some opportunities in Eastern Europe, where I have done work for many years addressing energy market issues. Beyond that, I look forward to spending a great deal of time outdoors in Maine, and visiting friends and family around the country and the world, whom I have too long neglected.”

Because the term of another commissioner, David Littell, is up in March, Welch’s early departure means the next governor will appoint two of the three PUC commissioners.

Welch first served as commission chair from 1993 to 2005. Between his commission appointments, he worked for PJM Interconnection, a Pennsylvania-based regional transmission organization, and was an attorney for five years at Pierce Atwood in Portland.

“Tom’s reputation and relationships have allowed Maine to punch well above its weight in regional debates, and that will certainly be missed,” said Tim Schneider, the state’s Public Advocate.

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