The Maine Public Utilities Commission announced Tuesday an end to the emergency halt on utility disconnections due to the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: BDN file photo

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Jeff Marks is Maine director and senior policy advocate for the Acadia Center, a research and advocacy organization based in Rockport.

Few state agencies have more impact on more Mainers’ daily lives than the Public Utilities Commission (PUC). The Maine PUC regulates electric, gas, and water utilities’ rates and services and provides oversight to monopolies Central Maine Power and Versant Power, which collectively serve more than 795,000 electricity customers over 22,000 square miles from Fort Kent to Kittery.

Due to outdated laws that defined the foundation on which it makes decisions, the PUC was charged with keeping rates low, ensuring reliable supply of electricity, and allowing utilities to earn a profit on their businesses. That’s it!

Those three responsibilities, while important, did not fully capture the role utility regulators can play in addressing climate change. If a clean energy investment would increase rates in the short term or cut utility profits, the PUC may be required to reject it, even if the investment benefits Maine people through lower, less volatile long-term rates, cleaner air, and better access to clean energy resources.

The Maine Legislature enacted, and the governor signed a bill to add “climate” to the PUC’s responsibilities, empowering the agency to make decisions that support greenhouse gas emission reductions as part of its primary mission. LD 1682 also opens the door for all state agencies — not just the PUC — to address equity concerns in environmental justice, frontline, and other vulnerable communities that are underserved or overburdened by current energy policies, programs and systems due to geography, race, income or other socioeconomic factors.

The Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future is charged with evaluating how to incorporate equity considerations across state government actions and report back to the Legislature in February 2022, followed by a new bill to implement its findings.

The decisions that state government makes today will create the building stock, transportation systems, and electricity infrastructure of 2030, 2050 and beyond. State agencies must prioritize climate now and create efficient buildings and electrified transportation, powered by clean, renewable energy. LD 1682 gives the PUC the tools to do so and sets Maine on a course to do it equitably for all.

The timing of this change fits well with Gov. Janet Mills’ pick of a seasoned energy attorney with the depth to fill a commissioner seat and help push the PUC into the future. The massive capital and planning necessary to transform buildings, transportation, and the electricity grid over the next three decades necessitates a deep understanding of the PUC’s capabilities and limitations to make it happen.

Commissioner Patrick Scully joins a PUC on the cusp of an energy transition, that will be called upon to expand heating and transportation electrification; increase clean energy generation, storage, and delivery of offshore wind, solar, and other renewables; and oversee innovative utility innovation and grid modernization.

Not all strategies are created equal, and the PUC will want to focus on those that deliver the biggest bang for ratepayers’ bucks. PUC commissioners, and eventually all of state government, will need to appropriately value pollution reductions, climate impacts, public health, job creation, improved reliability, and other costs and benefits while eliminating wasteful spending and stranded costs for fossil-fuel infrastructure inconsistent with climate actions.

If another bill that would replace Maine’s two investor-owned utilities with a community-owned utility is enacted, the PUC will need to help the new entity plan, accelerate, and achieve electrification of the entire state to meet our climate targets as rapidly, reliably, equitably, and affordably as possible.

If Maine follows its climate action plan and electrifies its economy — homes, businesses, and vehicles — with a clean, renewable, decarbonized electricity grid, the PUC and whatever utilities are left standing must consider climate and equity in all planning and regulatory decisions. Instead of choosing the cheapest solution in the moment, the PUC can choose the best solution for today and tomorrow’s ratepayers and require utilities to provide more innovative services to address one of the greatest crises of our time.