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Phelps Turner is a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation in Portland.
Last week, Mainers voted not to replace the state’s two investor-owned electric utilities with a single consumer-owned power company, Pine Tree Power. As I wrote a few weeks before the election, that was the outcome that the Conservation Law Foundation supported.
There’s no question that Central Maine Power and Versant Power have performance, reliability and customer service issues — issues their customers are, understandably, fed up with. Maine’s residents and businesses deserve clean, reliable and affordable electricity. Mainers also deserve electricity providers that are committed to confronting the climate crisis.
Question 3 provided no certainty that this quasi-public utility would solve the myriad problems we’ve seen from CMP and Versant — especially as it would operate within the same regulatory framework as these current utility companies.
But we also cannot maintain business as usual. CMP and Versant must be held accountable for their failures to perform, from their poor customer service to their slow response to the climate crisis. We can best do that by using the tools we already have to govern their operations and adding some new tools to that box.
Here’s what we recommend:
State officials must enforce and strengthen the utility accountability law passed in 2022. The law requires the state to establish performance metrics to hold utilities accountable and enforce penalties when they fall short. The Public Utilities Commission is overdue on finalizing the first group of standards under that 2022 law. And once that is done, Gov. Janet Mills and the Legislature should strengthen the law by adding provisions for affordability, electric grid updates, transparency and compliance with Maine’s climate laws. If CMP and Versant can’t meet these metrics, then they should face more significant financial penalties than currently in the law until they get in line, including revocation of their franchise to operate.
Mills should convene an advisory group focused on speeding up the process for new clean energy projects to connect to the grid affordably. We think that group should include four public members with expertise in clean energy generation, transmission and distribution; the presidents of CMP and Versant; two representatives from the renewable energy industry; a commissioner of the Public Utilities Commission; and the head of the Governor’s Energy Office.
We must overhaul and lower the costs that utilities can charge families and businesses. In addition to the utility accountability law, the Legislature made some good advances by banning CMP and Versant from charging Mainers for the costs of lawyers, lobbyists, marketing and industry associations for actions that solely benefit the utility. But more must be done, such as not allowing utilities to pass along the substantial costs associated with proceedings where electricity rates are set, and establishing a rate framework that links utility revenue and profit to specific levels of utility performance.
The Legislature should establish a permanent consumer advisory panel with members from across the state that is allowed to participate in the decision-making process at the Public Utilities Commission and is charged with providing an annual report to all utility customers. This will increase transparency into the utilities’ operations and decision-making.
We’re at a critical point in Maine. The decisions we make today will determine how well we can respond to the climate crisis in the coming years. Aggressively implementing and adding to the current systems to hold CMP and Versant accountable will make sure that these companies are delivering the affordable, reliable and clean energy Mainers need and deserve. And if they can’t walk the walk after talking the talk for the last six months, then the state should exercise its authority to revoke their franchises.