Governor Janet Mills today unveiled legislation that significantly reforms and strengthens the State’s approach to the oversight and accountability of Maine’s electric utilities.
The Governor’s bill, An Act to Ensure Transmission and Distribution Utility Accountability (PDF), protects the interests of Maine ratepayers, improves the operation and service of Maine’s electric utilities, and increases oversight and accountability of them.
The legislation requires that the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) establish minimum standards of service that utilities must deliver for Maine ratepayers. The legislation also empowers the PUC with enhanced authority to crack down on utilities that do not meet these standards by imposing harsher penalties and, if necessary, even forcing the sale of the utility for inadequate service.
The bipartisan legislation, developed by the Governor’s Energy Office in conjunction with Maine’s new Public Advocate Bill Harwood, is sponsored by Senator Stacy Brenner (D-Cumberland) and co-sponsored by Senator Mark Lawrence (D-York), Senator Trey Stewart (R-Aroostook), Senator Eloise Vitelli (D-Sagadahoc), House Speaker Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford), and Representative Nate Wadsworth (R-Hiram).
“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,” said Governor Janet Mills. “With this bill, we are shifting our approach to Maine’s electric utilities. We will empower the Maine Public Utilities Commission to design improved standards for service and finally give the Commission the tools it needs to ensure that utilities deliver on those standards or face new, harsh consequences. Maine people deserve nothing less than safe, reliable, and affordable service on a strong electric grid. My Administration will work with the Legislature, the Public Advocate, and the Public Utilities Commission to see that happen.”
“I applaud the Governor for her foresight in bringing forward this important legislation,” said Bill Harwood, Maine’s Public Advocate. “The bill strengthens electric utility regulation of Maine by filling in some glaring gaps in the statutes regulating Maine utilities. As Public Advocate, I welcome these new provisions and urge the Legislature to adopt them so that the OPA can use them to better serve and protect Maine ratepayers.”
“I am proud to sponsor this legislation and commend the Governor for moving it forward. “The energy sector will play a key role in ensuring the State of Maine is able to meet our climate commitments as well as provide reliable service for Maine people,” said Senator Stacy Brenner. “To accomplish this, we must hold our utilities accountable, and this legislation takes crucial steps to give the Public Utilities Commission the regulatory tools they need.”
“We must take serious action now to ensure Maine’s electric utilities are accountable to Maine customers. This legislation is a bipartisan effort to address the current problems we’re facing and set minimum standards for performance of our utility providers,” said Senator Mark Lawrence. “This is a very bold effort by Governor Mills to hold utilities accountable. I’m pleased to work with the Governor, and other members of the EUT Committee, to move this legislation forward.”
“The interest of Maine’s ratepayers has always been my priority in the legislature and will continue to be my focus. This bill represents apolitical measures to provide the regulators the tools necessary to ensure our electric utilities are held to standards that Maine people expect and deserve in a market with limited or no competition between providers,” said Senator Trey Stewart. “I look forward to working with committee members on this measure as it moves forward and crafting an agreement that’s in the best interest of those we serve.”
“Maine has been leading the nation on climate action and investments in renewable energy that are making us less dependent on expensive, out-of-state fossil fuels,” said Senator Eloise Vitelli. “To make sure these efforts are as effective as possible, we must have a regulatory structure that ensures our utilities are answerable to Maine people, especially as we pursue beneficial electrification.”
“Mainers deserve reliable utility service. Unwarranted disconnections and billing errors should result in consequences for the companies who are delivering power to our homes and businesses,” said House Speaker Ryan Fecteau. “I am joining Governor Mills in introducing this legislation to ensure reliability by strengthening accountability.”
“Cost and reliability of electricity service are of paramount importance to Maine people,” said Representative Nate Wadsworth. “This legislation will ensure there are standards in place that allow the Public Utilities Commission to provide transparency and accountability in regulating our electric utilities.”
The legislation was also welcomed by energy and environmental organizations across Maine:
“Maine deserves and needs electric utilities that are leaders across a broad range of performance measures, including reliability, affordability, customer service, clean energy, modernizing the grid, and climate action. Unfortunately, that’s not what we have today,” said Pete Didisheim, Advocacy Director, Natural Resources Council of Maine. “We commend the Governor for proposing this bill, and we look forward to working with lawmakers on a version that requires utilities to perform, pay penalties, or be replaced.”
“If we’re going to transform buildings, transportation, and the electricity grid to better serve Maine’s energy consumers and respond to the climate crisis, we need to start with utility regulatory reforms that give the Public Utilities Commission the tools to regulate utilities with Maine people in mind,” said Jeff Marks, Maine Director of the Acadia Center. “Acadia Center commends Governor Janet Mills for taking these necessary steps to best leverage ratepayer dollars to ensure reliability and affordability while simultaneously planning across all state agencies for climate and equity benefits for all Mainers.”
“To achieve Maine’s climate objectives, we need our electric utilities to provide a modern, reliable and clean power grid,” said Phelps Turner, Senior Attorney with Conservation Law Foundation. “This bill is an important step toward ensuring that our utilities improve their performance and do their part in securing a clean energy future where more of our electricity comes from renewable resources and where more of our buildings and vehicles are powered by electricity.”
“Part of our mission at Maine Conservation Voters includes ‘holding politicians accountable’ to their words, actions, and votes to protect Maine’s environment and communities. We look forward to Maine’s Legislature championing that same sentiment for our state’s utilities with this legislation. To build a healthier, more equitable, and just clean energy future for all, we must ensure that the entities tasked with implementing this future are reliable and committed to the vision advanced by Maine’s Climate Action Plan,” said Kathleen Meil, Director of Policy and Partnerships at Maine Conservation Voters.
The legislation reforms Maine’s approach to its electric transmission and distribution utilities in five primary ways:
Requires New, Quarterly Service Reports and Imposes Harsher Penalties for Substandard Service
The legislation requires the Maine Public Utilities Commission to set minimum standards for safe, reasonable, and adequate service to Maine customers. It then requires the PUC to issue quarterly reports on whether a utility is meeting these minimum standards. These reports will address utility operations, customer service, such as billing, and initiatives to combat climate change, such as interconnecting to solar projects.
If these quarterly reports determine that a utility is consistently failing to meet this standard, then the legislation requires the PUC is to impose new, higher administrative penalties – up to $1 million or 10 percent of the utility’s annual revenue – to force the utility to improve service.
This new approach establishes an ongoing system of review by the PUC that is a transparent and an alternative accountability mechanism to traditional utility oversight.
Forced Divestiture to Protect Maine Ratepayers
The legislation also establishes a process under which the PUC determines whether an electric utility is unfit to provide safe, adequate, and reliable service at just and reasonable rates to Maine ratepayers. If the PUC determines that sale of the utility is necessary to protect the interests of ratepayers, it will then invite bids from qualified buyers and select the purchase proposal that provides the most benefits to customers in the form of better service and lower rates at a fair purchase price.
Additionally, the legislation stipulates that, in the event the PUC invites bids from qualified buyers, it must also consider a bid to create a consumer-owned, quasi-municipal corporation for the purpose of purchasing the utility. This creates a mechanism whereby the PUC could evaluate whether an investor-owned utility or a consumer owned utility is in the best interests of the State.
New, Periodic Financial Audits
The legislation provides for periodic audits for Maine’s distribution and transmission utilities to ensure that the utility’s cost of providing service are consistent with the estimates used to set rates. Whenever Maine’s utilities have gone more than five years without a rate case, the legislation requires the utility to make a filing with the PUC comparing its current actual expenses to the estimates used in previous rate cases. If the discrepancy is greater than 10 percent, the PUC may conduct a financial audit. This new mechanism allows the PUC to review the utility’s financial books and records outside of a traditional rate case.
Strengthening Whistleblower Protections
The legislation strengthens existing utility whistleblower provisions — which protect utility employees from retaliation or discrimination by the utility, such as termination of employment, if the employee testifies before the Legislature or provides information to the PUC regarding the utility’s operations — by:
- expanding the protected individuals to include former utility employees, utility affiliates and utility contractors;
- protecting disclosures to the Public Advocate;
- narrowing the exemption from protection to only include providing false information, rather than the current exemption that includes providing any information that may harm the utility;
- limiting the award of attorney’s fees to a prevailing employee or contractor if the employee or contractor is required to go to court to enforce the statute and removing from the law the provision requiring the employee to pay the utility for its attorney’s fees if the utility prevails;
- prohibiting the utility from entering into a collective bargaining agreement with local unions in order to silence potential whistleblowers;
- requiring the utility to notify its employees, affiliates and contractors of their rights under the whistleblower statute; and
- authorizing the PUC to impose administrative penalties in the event a utility violates the statute.
These stronger protections will allow the PUC to respond actively to whistleblower cases.
Improving the Ability of Utilities to Prepare for and Respond to the Impacts of Climate Change
The legislation requires transmission and distribution utilities to submit every two years to the PUC a 10-year plan for protecting the utility’s assets and operations from the expected impacts of climate change, the first time in Maine history a report of this manner would be required. The PUC will then review the plan and, with input from stakeholders, may order the utility to take necessary action to protect Maine ratepayers. This new process ensures that utilities are prepared as much as reasonably possible for worsening storms, flooding, fires, or other climate related catastrophes that may impact the utility’s assets, operations, and delivery of service to Maine people.
The legislation will be considered by the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities, and Technology Committee.
Read the full statement here.