An expired term on the three-member Maine Public Utilities Commission is giving Gov. Janet Mills an opportunity to advance her climate change mitigation agenda with a key nomination to a panel with an outsize influence on state energy policy.

The six-year term of Bruce Williamson, an economist who was nominated by former Gov. Paul LePage in 2015, ended in March. Mills already has begun interviewing candidates for the position, although their names have not been disclosed.

And while the governor is under no specific deadline, she is likely to make a decision before the Legislature is set to adjourn in late June. The nomination is subject to review by the Legislature’s Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology, with final confirmation by the Maine Senate.

Observers say Mills is likely to seek someone who can help implement the four-year “Climate Action Plan” she issued in December. And based on speculation about who’s being interviewed, they say, Mills would prefer a woman who would bring diversity to a panel now occupied by three men. The PUC has seated female commissioners in years past, including Sharon Reishus, who was appointed PUC chair in 2008. But gender diversity on the commission would reflect the complexion of the cabinet Mills has appointed in her administration.

Asked recently about her preferences in filling the post, Mills didn’t answer directly. Her communications office sent a statement saying in part that the governor was “committed to nominating an experienced and highly qualified candidate who has a strong understanding of the energy transition that’s occurring in Maine” as well as the benefits of a clean-energy future.

Mills nominated the commission’s current chairman, Philip Bartlett, in 2019. Selecting a second person to serve on the three-member panel would firmly put Mills’ imprint on an agency that will be a major player in her administration’s aggressive efforts to transition Maine’s economy to one driven by renewable energy and affordable electricity.

That transition will have implications for economic development in Maine. It will influence the number and types of jobs created in emerging industries such as solar energy and offshore wind, as well as how much Mainers pay for electricity service, said David Littell, who served as a PUC commissioner from 2010 through 2015. That’s because the commission has a hand in creating specific rules and making decisions that shape the state’s climate policies, such as the ongoing process of approving power contracts that have led to hundreds of millions of dollars in investment to build big solar farms in Maine.

“The PUC’s role is among the most important in state government,” Littell said, “and it’s underappreciated.”

Littell and others say the commissioner jobs aren’t easy to fill because the workload is demanding.

The PUC regulates 430 electric, gas, telephone and water utilities and districts. Backed by a professional staff, the commission functions like a court. The three members can take testimony, subpoena witnesses and records, hold hearings and issue orders. Commissioners’ salaries are tied to those of superior court judges: $143,416 for the chairman and $137,280 for the others.

The job can involve reading thousands of pages of documents and holding deliberation sessions on topics ranging from whether a water district is justified in raising rates to whether a transmission line is in the public interest.

As Mills zeroes in on a PUC commissioner, she also will be considering her pick to head the Office of Public Advocate, an independent agency that represents consumers in utility matters.

The influential post became available this week when Barry Hobbins, Maine’s current public advocate, announced he would retire when his term ends in June. A former longtime lawmaker, Hobbins is a Democrat, but was picked by LePage in 2017. The public advocate nomination also will require legislative confirmation.

‘BELIEVABLE MESSENGER’ NEEDED

The region’s move away from fossil fuels for transportation and heating with so-called beneficial electrification is starting to play out at the PUC. Some examples include the commission’s approval of the New England Clean Energy Connect power line project, the ongoing probe into Central Maine Power’s problems with connecting solar farms, and the review of utility performance in areas including storm restoration and system upgrades.

These are examples of why a new commissioner should have a strong background in how Maine’s electric grid works and how it can accommodate a new generation of power resources such as offshore wind, Littell said.

“The grid is the enabler of those technologies,” he said.

Beyond gender diversity, Mills may try to find a balance of skills and experience, observers say, by nominating a candidate with some technical background in the clean energy sector.

Bartlett is a lawyer who served as Maine Senate majority leader and as co-chairman of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee. The PUC’s third commissioner, Randall Davis, is a former energy operations manager in the paper industry. He was nominated by LePage in 2017; his term ends in 2023.

“I think she’s going to look for someone with analytical training that she holds in high regard,” said Jim Mitchell, a long-term lobbyist and Democratic Party activist who’s friendly with Mills.

Mitchell, who lobbies for CMP but said he was expressing his personal views, expects Mills to nominate someone who “personifies her decarbonization goals.” Mills has set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Maine to a point where the state is emitting no more carbon dioxide than it’s absorbing or cutting by 2045. Advancing that agenda in a way that’s beneficial to both utilities and electric customers, Mitchell said, will take a savvy regulator.

To gain political support, Mitchell added, a nominee will need the backing of Maine’s environmental community – a core Mills constituency and one that will be important to her expected re-election bid next year.

Environmental groups have embraced state laws aimed at cutting carbon dioxide emissions to 45 percent of 1990 levels by 2030, and 80 percent by 2050.

“We want a person to help the state achieve those statutory goals, who has a clean-energy mindset,” said Beth Ahearn, who heads government affairs for Maine Conservation Voters.

To hit those targets, Ahearn said, the PUC will have to “step up its game” to direct Maine’s utilities to upgrade the grid.

“To achieve those goals, we’ve got to electrify and do it fast,” she said.

Of course, there’s a cost to making such upgrades. How that spending is shared between utility shareholders and electric ratepayers is a consistent source of tension in PUC decisions, one that may become magnified during the term of a new regulator.

“We’re talking about completely remaking our grid infrastructure, moving toward beneficial electrification and a new clean-energy supply,” said Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association. “All those things will require a significant oversight role at the PUC.”

It will be important, Payne said, for the new commissioner to be able to communicate why these changes matter and how average Mainers can participate in what tends to be a complex and highly technical process.

It’s also often controversial. The PUC recently has been in the middle of big public interest issues, such as its oversight of CMP’s billing system problems and its approval of the divisive NECEC power line project. Mitchell believes the PUC process has become more transparent under Bartlett’s leadership, but carrying out the state’s climate goals will test the agency’s ability to show it is acting in the public interest.

“There has to be public buy-in for the enormous transformation we’re going to make over the years,” Mitchell said. “You have to be a believable messenger.”

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