Dozens of Mainers sounded off for nearly seven hours Friday on a proposal from Gov. Janet Mills to hold electric utilities more accountable and possibly force them to be sold if they can’t improve their service.

Some of the speakers before the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee praised the bill, which would have the Maine Public Utilities Commission grade the electric companies each quarter on service, reliability and other factors, and penalize them if they perform poorly. The bill also would open the door for the PUC to order the sale of a utility if it repeatedly falls short of expectations, although members of the committee pointed out that the commission already has that authority.

Critics of the bill argued that it would be ineffective, give too much power to the PUC – whose members are appointed, not elected – and is really an effort to short-circuit a push to convert the state’s two major investor-owned utilities to consumer-owned entities.

Last year, the Legislature passed a proposal to create an entity called Pine Tree Power Co. to potentially take over the utilities, but it was vetoed by Mills, who said the Legislature’s consideration of the proposal was rushed.

But Mills also has been critical of the state’s two major electric utilities, Versant Power and Central Maine Power Co., calling their performance “abysmal.” Her proposal would subject the utilities to greater scrutiny by the PUC and increase the fines if they fail to correct any shortcomings.

Still, critics of the bill said the measure largely restates powers that the PUC already has. They also said the PUC is not the best vehicle for forcing the utilities to do better because public input is limited and the commissioners are not elected.


Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, said the accountability proposal offers “false hope” for customers frustrated by the utilities’ performance, which critics say includes too-frequent and lengthy power outages, high electric rates and billing problems.

“If CMP were not a monopoly, they would have been driven out of business long ago,” Bennett said.

He said the real problem is that the utility is owned by Iberdrola, a Spanish multinational power company. He said that because of that ownership, money from Maine consumers is “drained away” to foreign uses.

Bennett is not a member of the committee but spoke against the bill because he has supported proposals to create community-owned utilities.

But Dan Burgess, the director of the Governor’s Energy Office, told the committee that Mills’ proposal shows the state is serious about cracking down on the utilities’ service problems.

“We are well beyond the point of debating whether our utilities can do better,” Burgess said. “They can and they must.”


He said that Mills’ proposal includes new requirements for the utilities, including forcing the companies to investigate how their facilities might be vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Burgess also said the quarterly rating by the PUC would be transparent so consumers could understand the grades that the utilities receive.

William Harwood, the state’s public advocate before the commission, praised a measure in the bill that would provide protections to whistleblowers who want to bring possible wrongdoing by the utilities to regulators’ attention.

But Harwood also cautioned lawmakers about being too quick to move to a public takeover of the utilities because of the cost and complexity of that process.


“This is a dramatic remedy,” he said. “This is the shotgun behind the door that you hope you never have to use.”


A trio of CMP executives told the committee that the utility has addressed billing and customer service problems that plagued the company four years ago, and that they were committed to improving.

But a representative of Our Power, the lead group behind the consumer-owned utility effort, said customers of CMP and Versant agree the companies “are terrible.”

Andrew Blunt said the bill before the committee left too much leeway to the PUC and failed to provide the commission with a clear set of standards and instructions for what to do if the power utilities fall short.

And David Bilski, of New Harbor, said Mainers don’t need the PUC to conduct a regular assessment of the utilities’ performance.

“We already know the utilities’ ratings,” Bilski said. “They flunk, and they’ve flunked for years.”

Others told the committee that the bill has some worthwhile provisions, even if they oppose the measure as a whole.

For instance, William Thieme, of Cumberland, thinks the whistleblower protections are a step in the right direction. Still, Thieme said he doesn’t think the rest of the bill is strong enough to lead to better performance by the utilities.

He added that it consolidates power on the issue in the executive branch because PUC members are appointed by the governor.

The committee did not reach a consensus on the bill Friday and said it plans to schedule another work session in the coming days.

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