The lone commissioner at the Maine Public Utilities Commission who has been at odds with the energy policies of Gov. Paul LePage says he’s going to remain on the job after his term expires on March 31.
David Littell said he wants to continue participating in cases involving wind power contracts, the creation of a so-called Smart Grid Coordinator and future funding for Efficiency Maine.
“It became clear in the last two days that at least three major cases are going to extend beyond March 31,” Littell told the Portland Press Herald on Tuesday. “So I decided today to stay on at least to finish those matters, at least into April.”
Littell was appointed to his six-year term by former Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat. By law, commissioners can remain on the job after their term has ended, if a new commissioner hasn’t been nominated and confirmed by the Legislature.
LePage, a Republican, has yet to nominate a replacement. The governor’s energy director, Patrick Woodcock, said staff is conducting interviews and a nominee could be brought forward within a few weeks. Earlier this year, Woodcock was considered a leading candidate for the PUC. He confirmed on Tuesday that he had taken himself out of the running, saying he enjoys his current position.
MIRRORING LEPAGE’S VIEWS
Littell’s decision to stay comes at a time of heightened interest in the inner workings of the PUC and the composition of the three-member commission.
The PUC staff includes lawyers, technicians and other professionals. High-profile cases can involve months of study, public hearings and thousands of pages of testimony. But ultimately, decisions involving hundreds of millions of dollars in utility rates are made by just three people – the three commissioners.
The new scrutiny coincides with LePage’s relentless push for lower power rates and his view that costs associated with renewable energy and some efficiency programs undermine his goal. By being able to appoint all three commissioners, LePage can better advance his energy priorities and derail ones he doesn’t like.
Formally, LePage can’t tell a commissioner how to vote, any more than he can a judge. But the governor has found ways to pressure utility regulators.
In 2013, LePage was able to get the PUC to reopen a contract with Statoil, the Norwegian energy company that wanted to build a pilot offshore wind farm. The interference led Statoil to abandon the $120 million project.
In a more recent example, the governor sent letters last December to the commissioners asking them to seek new proposals from energy sources that might offer lower rates, including hydro and nuclear. The commission has done that, with replies due May 1.
Last week, the commission chairman, Mark Vannoy, and the third commissioner, Carlisle McLean, came under fire when they voted during a rule-making proceeding to adhere strictly to language in a landmark energy bill. At issue was the unrealized omission of a single word. But the result is a potential reduction of up to $38 million in funds next year for Efficiency Maine, which administers energy-savings and fuel-switching programs.
Vannoy was appointed by LePage in 2012. McLean was appointed by LePage in January. Democrats and their allies in the clean-energy and environmental communities questioned whether Vannoy and McLean were acting independently or reflecting the views of LePage, who has been critical with the focus of Efficiency Maine’s programs and how they’re financed.
Vannoy defended the vote, noting that he simply applied the law as it was written and didn’t seek to interpret meaning or intent beyond the words. And despite charges from Democrats, there’s no evidence LePage had anything to do with the matter.
In the aftermath, legislative leaders have said they will seek to fix language in the law to increase funding to $60 million, as intended. On Tuesday, the committee that deals with energy matters in the Legislature sent a letter to the PUC seeking staff material related to the decision to cut Efficiency Maine funding.
“Everyone agrees that the PUC made its decision based on a phrase with a printing error, one that created the nonsensical phrase ‘retail electricity transmission and distribution rates,'” said Assistant House Majority Leader Sara Gideon, D-Freeport.
She added: “We need better insight into how we got here so we can fix the problem.”
Meanwhile, environmental activists have been meeting to decide whether to seek a rehearing or challenge the decision in court.
Vannoy and McLean also created a stir in February, when they voted to reconsider agreements with two wind-power companies. Vannoy said recent changes in energy markets made it prudent to see if ratepayers were still getting the best deal.
In both instances, Littell cast the dissenting vote.
CHANGE IN BALANCE
While the Efficiency Maine vote has gotten the most attention, the potential impact of the wind power case may be just as noteworthy.
Late December, the commission voted to accept long-term power contracts for two wind projects, Highland Wind in Highland Plantation and Weaver Wind, near Ellsworth. Both were judged to meet state policy goals of providing benefits to ratepayers at low risk and creating new renewable, emissions-free power.
The contracts were approved 2-1, with Littell and former Chairman Tom Welch voting for them and Vannoy voting against them. Welch retired at the end of December and LePage appointed Vannoy as chairman. When McLean came aboard, the vote flipped, with Littell now in the minority.
It remains to be seen how Vannoy and McLean will proceed with reconsideration. It’s also unclear whether Littell’s continued presence will have any impact on the outcome, based on the past voting.
A spokesman for Weaver Wind said the company negotiated in good faith with the PUC and is still hoping the contract is signed.
“The Weaver project alone will save ratepayers up to $35 million,” said the spokesman, John Lamontagne, corporate communications director for SunEdison. “The decision to reopen the process sent a troubling signal to current and future participants and the many businesses they partner with to develop these projects.”
Weaver Wind is a $155 million project rated at 72 megawatts, enough to serve roughly 30,000 homes, based on an estimated capacity factor and average demand. The contract was for 25 years, starting at 5.3 cents per kilowatt-hour.
If the PUC fails to sign the contract, Lamontagne said, SunEdison will explore other options. Those options could include recent requests for proposals elsewhere in New England.
While noting his interest in resolving the wind contracts, Littell said he won’t be around for a major energy case moving through the agency.
The PUC is in the midst of deciding whether Maine utility customers should invest up to $75 million a year to help expand the region’s gas-pipeline capacity, with the promise of lower electric rates in the future. This idea is facing stiff opposition from environmental groups, which say too much natural gas would stunt the growth of renewable energy and contribute to climate change.
Last fall, Littell cast the minority vote against a preliminary step toward approval. He said the agency should examine more alternatives before going ahead with such a costly proposal.
Consultants for the PUC now are studying three proposals, but the outcome is months away.
Littell said his timetable also is being driven by personal and family matters, including the prospects of new employment.