As Maine’s new public advocate, I am already hard at work representing Maine ratepayers. For the past few weeks, I have had the opportunity to learn more about the job and better understand the challenges facing the Office of Public Advocate. One finding is clear: I stand on the shoulders of many outstanding advocates and their staff who zealously represented Maine ratepayers for the past 40 years. And, today, the office is fortunate to have a team of dedicated, smart and hardworking professionals protecting ratepayers.

“One especially important part of our rate work will be ensuring that utility services are affordable to low-income ratepayers,” writes Maine’s new public advocate, William Harwood.

I want to share with Maine ratepayers a few of my priorities for the office. First and foremost, utility requests to raise rates. Every time a utility seeks a rate increase, the Office of the Public Advocate will be there to challenge the underlying assumptions and methodologies relied on by the utility. Although there will always be a David vs. Goliath feel to opposing the larger utilities with their stable of lawyers and consultants, we will never shy away from insisting that all rates meet the statutory requirement of being “just and reasonable.” As part of this effort, we will look for any utility expenditures that were imprudently incurred and should not be passed on to ratepayers.

One especially important part of our rate work will be ensuring that utility services are affordable to low-income ratepayers. We must never put Maine consumers in the terrible position of choosing between paying a utility bill and purchasing other necessities such as food or medicine. I am proud that one of my first official acts as public advocate was joining with the Governor’s Energy Office to propose the recently approved one-time $90 bill credit for Central Maine Power’s and Versant Power’s 90,000 low-income ratepayers. The Office of the Public Advocate will continue to look for opportunities to make utility services affordable to our most vulnerable citizens.

But affordable rates are not enough. Good service is just as important as reasonable rates. Because utilities are monopolies, there are no competitors for us to choose, and because utility services are a necessity, consumers have no control over the level of service that utilities provide. Accordingly, the Office of the Public Advocate will respond aggressively to any evidence that utilities are not meeting their statutory duty to provide “safe, reasonable and adequate” service. In that regard, we wholeheartedly support the governor’s bill (L.D. 1959) to require the Public Utilities Commission to issue quarterly report cards to each electric utility on the level of their service, and impose financial penalties for failing grades.

Finally, the job of the advocate has become more complex in recent years, as more and more ratepayers not only consume electricity but also generate electricity and supply power back to the grid. Whether installing rooftop solar panels or participating in community solar farms, more and more ratepayers are becoming both buyers and sellers of electricity. This creates major new challenges and opportunities – both for the technical operation of the grid but also by imposing greater costs on those ratepayers who are unable to generate and sell electricity. The Office of the Public Advocate will be vigilant in exploring ways to limit the cost of this new phenomenon without diminishing its important contribution to addressing climate change.

As I tackle these challenges, I look forward to engaging in a dialogue with Maine ratepayers whom I am privileged to represent. The Office of the Public Advocate will expand our ongoing efforts at consumer outreach and education and we welcome questions and feedback from ratepayers.

— Special to the Telegram

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