An economist from Tennessee with an interest in energy issues got the nod from Gov. Paul LePage for the remaining slot on the Public Utilities Commission on Monday, the same day as a global wind power company said it was abandoning efforts to get a power contract in Maine because of issues with the commission.

LePage nominated Bruce Williamson, senior economist at the Institute for Nuclear Security at the University of Tennessee’s Howard Baker Center for Public Policy, for the third and final slot on the PUC. Although he hasn’t lived in Maine, Williamson said he has relatives here and has followed energy policy in New England since he became interested in the issue in the 1970s. He became aware of the job opening through a friend.

“I have no agenda in coming to Maine,” he said in an interview with the Portland Press Herald on Monday. “I’m not bringing any prejudice about one type of energy versus another. It’s all about making sense financially.”

If endorsed by the legislative panel that handles utility matters and confirmed by the full Senate, Williamson will join two other LePage appointees to head up an agency that’s instrumental in steering state energy policy, and ultimately, influencing what Mainers pay for electricity and natural gas.

SCRUTINY OF PUC

LePage previously nominated Mark Vannoy, an engineer and former Navy officer who now serves as chairman, and Carlisle McLean, the governor’s former chief legal counsel, to the commission. Williamson would replace David Littell, a holdover from the administration of Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, and serve a six-year term.

Williamson’s salary wasn’t announced, but Maine PUC commissioners earned salaries of $117,000 in 2013, according to the Council of State Governments.

The nomination comes during a period of heightened scrutiny of the PUC.

Environmental activists say recent decisions signal an ideological shift for the agency that reflects LePage’s strongly held view that subsidies aimed at helping renewable energy and efficiency programs are increasing electric rates and discouraging businesses from expanding in Maine. LePage favors policies that encourage expansion of natural gas pipelines.

Though he appointed two of the three commissioners during his first term, LePage has criticized the PUC for not doing more to make energy affordable for all Mainers. In his inaugural address, he indicated that the agency has favored “rich, subsidized investors and environmentalists,” a swipe at the energy contracts and tax policies meant to encourage wind and other renewable energy development.

Debate over this issue heated up in February, when Vannoy and McLean voted to reconsider the agency’s prior approval of two long-term contracts governing the purchase of electricity from wind power projects in Somerset and Hancock counties. LePage had sent a letter to the PUC in December urging it to take a second look at those contracts. A spokesman for the PUC said the letter had no influence and that the commission’s concerns stemmed from observations at the time that falling wholesale prices for oil and natural gas may have changed the cost differential, and lessened the value of the wind contracts to ratepayers.

Final deliberations in the case are likely later this spring. But the review is moot for one of the wind farms.

SunEdison, developer of the proposed 22-turbine Weaver Wind project near Ellsworth, released a statement Monday saying it was withdrawing its power-purchase plan and would try to sell its electricity elsewhere in New England.

“The Weaver project would have saved Maine ratepayers up to $35 million over the contract term,” said John Lamontagne, a SunEdison spokesman. “SunEdison had hoped the PUC would execute the negotiated contract to deliver clean energy at a very competitive price to Maine homes and businesses, but it became clear to us that the Maine PUC was not going to approve the power-purchase agreement.”

A trade group representing wind and renewable energy developers criticized the PUC for SunEdison’s move.

“The PUC’s actions have undermined Maine’s business climate and sent a strong message to investors that they can’t count on a fair and predictable process in our state,” said Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association. “Now, consumers in other states will benefit from low-cost, clean and renewable energy that’s generated in Maine, while ratepayers here are left scratching their heads and wondering why the PUC would derail a good deal.”

POLITICAL FIRESTORM

In a separate issue, the PUC set off a political firestorm last month when Vannoy and McLean voted on a rule-making procedure for Efficiency Maine, based in part on a one-word typo in a complex energy bill. The vote had the effect of cutting $38 million for energy-efficiency programs and ignoring legislative intent.

Lawmakers now are fighting over how to fix the bill.

Environmental groups, led by the Natural Resources Council of Maine, say both these actions will increase electric rates for Mainers, not reduce them. They have filed an appeal at the PUC over the rule-making procedure that resulted in the $38 million cut and the matter ultimately could wind up in court.

Williamson said he has no bias against renewable energy, noting that he designed and built a passive solar home for his parents in Colorado.

If confirmed by the Legislature, Williamson said he would defer to lawmakers for setting policy, and be a good listener to understand and learn the views of stakeholders. In the end, he said, his decisions would be guided by economics and long-term financial projections.

“I just love economic models,” he said.

Williamson grew up on Long Island, New York. He was a research associate at the Institute for Energy Analysis in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in the late 1970s, before working for worldwide telecom companies for more than a decade. He has been at the Institute for Nuclear Security for two years.

His work in defense and national security economics includes comparative cost analyses of major defense acquisition programs and the use of public-private partnerships in modernizing the national nuclear security infrastructure, according to the university.

Williamson holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Cornell University in American foreign policy and government, a master’s degree in international relations from the Korbel School of International Relations, and a Ph.D. in economics from the University of New Mexico.

“I encourage the Legislature to move swiftly on this nomination and base their consideration on the merits and qualifications of Dr. Williamson,” LePage said in a statement. “There is important work to do at the MPUC and I have the utmost confidence he will serve the people of Maine well.”

The House chair of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee welcomed the nomination. “We’re pleased the governor is moving forward with a nominee to properly fill the vacancy on the Public Utilities Commission, given the significant energy issues that are on the agenda,” said Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland. “We’re looking forward to a full and complete hearing and learning more about Mr. Williamson.”