Nov. 12—As the dust settles on the Pine Tree Power bid, it's time for Maine to bring the regulation of its electric utilities up to snuff.
A thumping majority of voters last week rejected the proposal to create a new publicly owned electric utility that would have replaced investor-owned incumbents Central Maine Power and Versant.
It would do a grave disservice to the state, however, to treat the defeat of this first-of-its-kind proposal — however spectacular, in the end, at 70%-30% — as an endorsement of the way things are; you don't need us to tell you that they're not great.
Many of Pine Tree Power's ends can and must be pursued, now, by different means. With the appropriate regulatory muscle, Maine can check off some of the boxes that dominated the public power campaign: saving money, improving service to consumers, reducing outages and, most critically, getting the electrical grid where it needs to be in 2023 — and well beyond.
As this editorial board wrote last month: "The delivery of electricity, like other essential services, falls under government oversight. Where the regulated public utilities tasked with delivering electricity fall short, or take advantage of consumers, that regulation has failed."
How to correct that failure? We've got to take a hard look at the body responsible for accountability.
Like most state PUCs, Maine's was created in the early 1900s, up and running by 1914. There wasn't an inordinate amount to regulate back then.
According to Maine law, the role of the agency is "to ensure safe, reasonable and adequate service, to assist in minimizing the cost of energy available to the State's consumers and to ensure that the rates of public utilities subject to rate regulation are just and reasonable to customers and public utilities and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to meet the greenhouse gas emissions reduction levels."
The greenhouse gas part was added in 2021. Many other objectives and responsibilities could be reasonably tacked on to this statutory statement of purpose; the modern American PUC has a huge job. Its responsibilities and competencies have expanded to include social and equity outcomes; nimble responses to a battery of legislative mandates and ever-changing regulatory regimes; and that insistent focus on formal climate goals.
The Maine PUC is overseen by three full-time commissioners who are tasked with all final decisions. That work is supported by a staff of 60 or 70 across six divisions.
While three commissioners is more or less standard, there's no reason for Maine — faced with country-leading consumer grievances and grid-related challenges as broad and unique as they are — to keep that number there. Increasing the number of commissioners to five, and taking exaggerated care to ensure that those commissioners come from complementary backgrounds, and new backgrounds, has the potential to give it the teeth it needs.
The commission would also benefit greatly from the addition of in-house consumer advocates, whose work can bolster input from the Office of the Public Advocate and generally keep the focus of the PUC trained on Maine consumers.
The Legislature should feel confident in its ability to direct the PUC in more demanding and effective ways. The PUC should be comfortably positioned to take up various directions and mandates.
The momentum behind the Pine Tree Power campaign, and the statewide conversation that it started, should have a valuable bearing on the future of Maine's utilities. The average Mainer has been forced to give more thought to the breakdown of their electricity bill and to the need for a responsive, modernized grid system in recent weeks than ever before.
What we can't do now is stand by and expect the utility companies to look after themselves — no matter how effective they are at telling us that they will. Robust oversight capacity is a must.
Proponents of Pine Tree Power told this editorial board earlier in the fall that the concept of better regulation as a viable alternative to their proposal left them cold.
To have no confidence in this political process, or in this agency, resigns it to staying weak. If we can resource it and empower it to do more for consumers and for the climate, we can enjoy greater rigor and better outcomes. With appropriate scaling up and overdue cultural change, the PUC can come good on the accountability Maine deserves.