William Harwood, a utility lawyer with decades of experience representing power, water and gas companies in Maine, has won the support of a key legislative panel in his bid to become the state’s next public advocate.

Following Tuesday’s unanimous recommendation by the Maine Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, Harwood’s nomination now heads to the Maine Senate for a likely confirmation. No one testified in opposition at the hearing.

William Harwood

In Maine, the public advocate represents consumers in utility matters that are regulated by the Public Utilities Commission, including electric, gas and water rates, and service issues. The advocate can review, investigate, make recommendations and intervene in cases before the PUC, as well as federal energy and telecommunications regulators.

The office maintains a high profile in cases of public interest, most notably those involving electric utility rates and service.

Harwood was nominated by Gov. Janet Mills for the position’s four-year term. He would replace Barry Hobbins, who retired last summer.

Harwood’s nomination comes at an important inflection point in Maine’s energy scene, amid growing concern about affordable electric and gas rates.

The Mills administration has been advancing policies to fight climate change, including those expanding the development of solar energy. Some of those polices are pushing up energy prices. At the same time, wholesale natural gas prices have led electricity supply rates to spike this year.

Those developments, as well as complaints about service quality, have led critics to push for a proposed consumer-owned entity to replace Maine’s two major investor-owned power utilities: Central Maine Power and Versant Power.

During questioning from lawmakers Tuesday, Harwood acknowledged the balance between advocating for affordable utility rates and advancing the state’s climate goals.

“I don’t want to see any resident have to chose between paying for food and medicine or their utility bills,” Harwood said.

Harwood has been working since September as senior adviser for regulatory affairs in the Governor’s Energy Office. Prior to joining the office, he served as senior counsel at the Verrill Dana law firm in Portland.

Harwood specialized for over 40 years in representing public utilities, including CMP and Versant’s predecessors, in cases before agencies including the PUC and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in rate-setting matters, management audits and merger approvals. But he also has a deep background and interest in matters outside the utility arena, including working to expand legal services for low-income Mainers and reduce gun violence.

Harwood lives in Yarmouth with his wife, Ellen, and has five grown children. His residency in an affluent part of Maine led Rep. Steven Foster, R-Dexter, to wonder about Harwood’s commitment to rural Mainers who struggle to pay their utility bills.

Harwood noted his background in working on utility issues in eastern and northern Maine, and said it would be his goal to support rates that are “as low as reasonably possible.” But he also acknowledged the continuing need for the range of subsidies available to help low-income residents pay for essential services.

The next public advocate is bound to be pulled into the debate over whether Mainers should vote to replace CMP and Versant Power with some form of a consumer-owned utility. Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, sought to probe Harwood’s sentiments on this topic, by asking about the appropriate return on equity for utility investments and the PUC’s ability to determine whether a utility is fit to maintain its monopoly status. Berry is a co-chair of the committee and a leading proponent of consumer-owned power.

Harwood replied that distribution utilities in Maine aren’t risky ventures and shouldn’t receive a rate of return that’s too generous. And he noted that the “fitness to serve” question has never been tested in Maine, but that perhaps it should receive more attention.

Regarding solar policy, Harwood said the net energy billing issues being reviewed by lawmakers are among the most difficult policies facing the state. While the incentives have led to an explosion of solar development, they’re also expected to increase energy rates. It may turn out that a competitive bidding process for power contracts overseen at the PUC is a better vehicle for expanding solar and wind power, he suggested.

During the confirmation hearing, Harwood received glowing praise for his intellect, experience and compassion from a range of speakers, including representatives from the the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Renewable Energy Association.

A Mills spokesperson recently said Harwood would earn $93,400 to $140,000 a year.


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