Energy committee splits on Gov. Mills’ utility accountability proposal

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On March 18, the Maine Legislature’s Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology held a work session on Gov. Janet Mills’ proposal to hold electric utilities accountable. The committee produced a divided report, with three factions voting for three different amendments to the original bill.

As originally drafted, LD 1959, a governor’s bill presented to the committee by Sen. Stacy Brenner (D-Cumberland), required the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to create minimum service requirements for transmission and distribution utilities and issue quarterly report cards. The original bill also created a pathway to divest from consistently underperforming utilities and required the PUC to appoint a five-member commission to develop a proposal for a consumer-owned utility.

Prior to the work session, Brenner offered a sponsor’s amendment that removed the requirement to develop a proposal for a consumer-owned utility. According to Brenner, this was done to allow the idea of creating a consumer-owned utility, which is actively being circulated to appear before Maine voters in a future referendum election, to “have its own moment.”

Brenner said her amendment focused on three areas: strengthening performance metrics for utilities, eliminating divestiture language she called “insufficient” and a “distraction to the core purpose of the bill,” and adding a new section on integrated grid planning. 

The amendment adds a new section to the bill requiring the PUC to implement integrated grid planning “to assist in the transition to a clean, affordable, and reliable electric grid in a cost effective manner.” The PUC is required to develop plans that include forecasts of projected load, baseline energy supply data and assessment, hosting capacity analysis and an assessment of the “environmental, equity and environmental justice impacts of integrated distribution plans.”

The grid plan must also include a three-year action plan that optimizes near-term investments in the grid and operations. The amendment authorizes the PUC to open adjudicatory proceedings to ensure utilities’ plans meet the requirements.

Another addition to the original bill in Brenner’s amendment is a section ordering the PUC to initiate proceedings to compare annual expenditures of investor-owned utilities to determine if they are overcharging consumers with their rates.

Brenner’s amendment was the basis for the ought to pass as amended vote the committee took on March 18. Several other amendments were also offered during the work session, and Brenner’s amendment incorporated elements from each.

Rep. Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham) offered an amendment based on the original language of LD 1959. Berry’s amendment also changes the divestiture portion of the bill.

Berry’s proposal changes the considerations for the PUC when it examines divesting an underperforming utility. Berry’s amendment requires the PUC to consider whether divestiture will result in net benefits to ratepayers in the form of better rates and services and whether ”reorganization will result in greater local control of the utility’s management and operations in a manner that improves the ability of local management to protect the interests of the utility’s ratepayers in this State.”

Berry’s amendment also added a new section to the bill that would allow investor-owned utilities to be franchised. Under the measure, franchises would expire every 20 years and the PUC would determine whether to renew them by following the bill’s procedures for divestiture.

Berry also made technical changes to the bill’s language and added customer satisfaction to the minimum service standards outlined in the bill. He also added a provision requiring the PUC to audit data on performance standards reported by a utility every three years and stipulated that utilities not accurately reporting data would be subject to an administrative penalty.

Berry said that he had discussed many of the changes in his proposed amendments with Brenner, but the portion on franchising investor-owned utilities was not one of them. 

Sen. Trey Stewart (R-Aroostook) also offered an amendment to LD 1959. During the work session, Stewart said he had concerns with the bill’s original language and wanted to see changes around cost impact. His amendment included language directing the PUC to consider the impacts of its rules while setting performance metrics for utilities.

Stewart was also concerned about proposed language in Brenner’s amendment that directed the PUC to compare annual expenditures between investor-owned utilities in Maine and comparable utilities located elsewhere in the United States. Stewart wanted to include language ensuring the comparison was an “apples to apples” comparison.

Other amendments were proposed by Rep. Nicole Grohoski (D-Ellsworth) and Sen. Mark Lawrence (D-York). Grohoski’s concerns were with the integrated grid planning section included in both Berry and Brenner’s amendments. Grohoski said she was uncomfortable with utilities providing the first planning effort and wanted language included that gave the PUC recourse to penalize utilities that were not adhering to plans.

Lawrence’s amendment incorporated suggestions made by Michael Stoddard, the executive director of the Efficiency Maine Trust.

During the work session, Stoddard said his agency saw many of its efforts in the bill’s provisions on integrated grid planning. Stoddard suggested that grid solutions on the customer side of the meter reference and incorporate Efficiency Maine Trust’s triennial plan. 

The committee tabled the bill for a portion of the work session and temporarily adjourned in order to discuss the competing amendments. When the committee returned, Brenner offered an updated version of her amendment which incorporated changes suggested by Berry and Stewart.

Brenner said the new version of her amendment would include Berry’s proposed audit of data on performance standards provided by utilities and his incorporation of existing statutory language directing the PUC to consider whether divestiture of a utility would result in greater local control.

Brenner also said her revised amendment would include Stewart’s proposals relating to cost metrics being considered in relation to the report cards on utility performance outlined in the bill and proposed language clarifying that comparisons between utilities apply only to those in similar climates to Maine.

Brenner also said she would incorporate the changes suggested by the Efficiency Maine Trust. 

An ought to pass as amended motion, incorporating the changes in Brenner’s revised amendment, resulted in three different reports. 

Sens. Lawrence and Eloise Vitelli (D-Sagadahoc) joined Reps. Scott Cuddy (D-Winterport), Stanley Ziegler (D-Montville), and Melanie Sachs (D-Freeport) in voting in favor of the ought to pass as amended motion. 

Berry stated he intended to file a different ought to pass as amended report, which he intended to base on an updated version of his amendment. Reps. Nathan Carlow (R-Buxton), Chris Kessler (D-South Portland), and Grohoski joined Berry’s report.

Sen. Stewart said he intended to file a separate report based on his amendment. Reps. Steven Foster (R-Dexter), Chad Grignon (R-Athens), and Nathan Wadsworth (R-Hiram) also joined Stewart’s report.

Final language of the amendments will not be available until after language reviews have been completed by the committee.

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