Lawmakers doubt effectiveness of public advocate

By Mal Leary, Capitol News Service
Posted March 26, 2010, at 9:39 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — As the Legislature’s Utilities and Energy Committee has slogged through days of deliberations on state energy policy, some members have questioned whether Public Advocate Richard Davies has represented the interests of Maine consumers, or his boss, Gov. John Baldacci.

“I, as a legislator, have had no input from the public advocate on the impact of this bill,” said Rep. Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, during a committee work session earlier this week on LD 1810, legislation from the Ocean Energy Task Force. “This could have an impact on the prices for consumers.”

The measure, setting state policy dealing with offshore wind power, includes allowing the Public Utilities Commission to set up an “ocean power offering.” That would allow consumers to buy electricity generated by wind turbines. But the price would be higher — some argue much higher — than the existing prices for electricity.

Thibodeau said Davies has not been at the committee work sessions on a regular basis and has not provided the panel with the benefit of an independent review of the extensive proposals from the Ocean Energy Task Force and their effect on ratepayers.

“You arrived here at 4:35, and at 5:15 you are still reading the bill,” he said. “I am amazed that this would not have been a huge priority for the public advocate’s office.”

Rep. John Hinck, D-Portland, co-chairman of the committee tried to cut off the criticism asking how it was relevant to the discussion of the bill. But the concerns were bipartisan.

“I share Rep. Thibodeau’s concerns,” said Rep. David Van Wie, D-New Gloucester. “We did not get an unbiased, independent perspective on behalf of the ratepayer.”

He said that consumers, both residential and businesses could end up paying substantially more for electricity as wind power comes on line at a higher price than other sources of electricity.

Davies, under questioning by committee members, acknowledged that he serves at the pleasure of the governor and is considered part of the administration.

He pointed out that the committee has gone on record, by changing the public advocate law, that it wants a more independent office. When asked if he wanted to respond to the criticism, he said, “I don’t feel a need to respond, no.”

Sen. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, the committee co-chairman, said in an interview that the change in law would make the public advocate’s term in office independent of the governor. But that will not take effect until the next governor nominates someone for the post.

Hobbins said the panel does believe the office needs to be more independent of the governor’s office.

“Overall, I believe the public advocate has served the state well in his 2½ years as the public advocate,” he said.

Hobbins said the advocate has been busy on other utility issues before the Legislature, the Public Utilities Commission and in the courts. He said the bankruptcy of FairPoint Communications has taken an incredible amount of time of Davies and his staff.

“I think you have to look at the totality of his service as public advocate, not on one bill or issue,” Hobbins said. “I certainly would vote to confirm him again.”

Hobbins said the committee action that encourages state government and the University of Maine system and other state agencies to buy wind power at a higher price recognizes the high upfront costs of renewable power sources. He said wind power would look increasingly better as fossil fuel generated power increases in cost.

“People are forgetting that oil was $147 a barrel in the fall of 2008,” Hobbins said. “We have to look to the future and renewables and not forget what costs could be if we continue to depend on imported oil.”

The panel spent several work sessions over several weeks to craft the bill based on the Ocean Energy Task Force that looked at both wind power and tidal power.

After lengthy discussion members of the committee unanimously did vote to recommend the bill pass as amended. The bill states there is significant potential to produce electricity from the wind and oceans off Maine’s coastline.

The panel also heard those benefits are years away. Habib Dagher, the director of the Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the University of Maine, told the panel at a work session it will be 2012 before the prototype floating wind turbine will be operating and 2016 before a 25-megawatt project could be operating.

The bill establishes a goal of building 5,000 megawatts of generating capacity offshore by 2030. It will be considered by the Legislature next week.

http://bangordailynews.com/2010/03/26/politics/lawmakers-doubt-effectiveness-of-public-advocate/ printed on April 25, 2014