On Jan. 18, the Maine Public Utilities Commission made a decision that raises critical questions about how rural communities across the state receive and pay for electricity. In a 2-1 vote, the commission denied Emera Maine’s request to acquire the Swan’s Island Electric Cooperative, a deal that would have provided more affordable electricity service to the Swan’s Island and Frenchboro communities.

Emera Maine and the island electric co-op have been working toward the merger for nearly two years. Commissioner Bruce Williamson’s rationale for his opposition raises serious concerns about how electricity and other services are provided in our state. During deliberations, Williamson said, “People choose to live on Swan’s Island. They managed to live with high oil and high fuel prices in the past. Everything costs more than it does on the mainland, and it always has. And we learned in Real Estate 101 that you pay for location.”

Many northern and western Maine communities are far more remote than our islands. In fact, Maine is the most rural state in the nation, with 61.3 percent of residents living outside of cities, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Do we want a state in which rural communities pay differential rates for electricity because of their remoteness? So much of the work of the Maine Legislature has been focused on avoiding this outcome. Like electricity, our phone and internet service in rural areas are provided based on averaging the costs across our large and sparsely populated geography. To act otherwise would deepen the divide that favors urban areas over rural areas.

If regulators or policymakers begin making decisions that advantage or disadvantage certain communities — potentially denying equitable access to basic services like electricity to some — much of rural Maine would be in jeopardy of being relegated to a costlier life or being constrained in its economic development efforts. Furthermore, the assumption that people “choose” where they live in Maine is flawed, ignoring generational history and familial ties. Most rural Mainers, including those who live year-round on the islands, are not highly mobile nor do they have the resources to live wherever they want.

The island electric co-op, after many months of meetings and negotiations, was working to merger with Emera Maine because its membership had decided it was no longer able to provide safe, reliable and affordable electricity to its ratepayers. Swan’s Island and Frenchboro pay some of the highest electric rates in the nation, nearly three times what we pay on the mainland.

The small year-round populations of these communities (350 on Swan’s Island and 36 on Frenchboro) make it difficult to staff offices and maintain the equipment required to safely and reliably distribute electricity. Failing to approve the acquisition leaves these communities without a viable alternative.

The islanders need a path forward. We at the Island Institute work to sustain Maine’s island and remote coastal communities and exchange ideas and experiences to further the sustainability of communities here and elsewhere. It’s work that we’ve been doing for 34 years. With that perspective, we can confidently assert that islands and remote communities make important contributions to our state’s economy and culture. And so we are concerned when state policy or regulatory proceedings purposely or inadvertently exacerbate challenges to their viability.

We need to have deeper conversations about how policy affects the fate of our rural communities. If we do choose to live in Maine, that choice comes with limitations. But state regulators and policymakers must not further burden or divide us. Essential services like electricity allow each corner of Maine — rural or not — to thrive.

Rob Snyder is president of the Rockland-based nonprofit the Island Institute.