Governor Janet Mills listens as Kara Hay, chief executive officer of PenquisCAP, speaks during a press conference on Nov. 4, 2021 at General Insulation in Brewer. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Democratic Gov. Janet Mills wants to clamp down on electric utility performance with new standards of service and harsh penalties that could include the sale of underperforming utilities.

The proposal unveiled Wednesday would require the Maine Public Utilities Commission to establish minimum standards for quarterly performance.

Utilities that consistently miss the targets could face steep financial penalties, or worse; a utility could be dismantled and sold if it “consistently fails to meet the requirements” or becomes unable to fulfill its duties “because it is financially impaired.”

The proposal could emerge as an alternative to a referendum drive aimed at creating a consumer-owned utility to replace Central Maine Power and Versant Power. The referendum effort was launched after the proposal failed in the Legislature after a veto by Mills.

Despite her veto, the governor said it’s time for a new approach to dealing with the state’s privately owned utilities.

“Whether it’s poor customer service, billing problems, or extended power outages, the issues experienced by Maine people over the past several years have made clear that Maine doesn’t have the tools it needs to hold our utilities accountable. It’s time for that to change,” she said in a statement.

Her proposal, first reported by the Portland Press Herald, was developed with help from the governor’s energy office and the public advocate’s office, and it would put the Maine PUC in the driver’s seat for ensuring that utilities meet state-mandated benchmarks in the future.

Under the proposal, a utility that fails to meet benchmarks for two consecutive quarters could be fined up to $1 million or 10 percent of revenue.

Continued poor performance could result in the utility being dismantled and sold to another utility or to make way for a “consumer-owned, quasi-municipal corporation.”

Further, the proposal would strengthen whistle-blower protections and require utilities for the first time to prepare a plan for addressing expected impacts of climate change.

The proposal comes at a time of frustration with CMP over a botched rollout of a billing system, slow response to storm damage and power outages, and a controversial utility corridor in western Maine that would serve as a conduit for Canadian hydropower.

There was no immediate comment from CMP or its parent, Avangrid.

Bill Harwood, Maine’s public advocate, applauded the governor for tackling “some glaring gaps in the statutes regulating Maine utilities.”

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Stacy Brenner, D-Cumberland, and co-sponsored by Sens. Mark Lawrence, D-York; Trey Stewart, R-Aroostook; Eloise Vitelli, D-Sagadahoc; along with House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, and Rep. Nate Wadsworth, R-Hiram.

Story by David Sharp