AUGUSTA, Maine — The state public advocate’s office, which represents the interests of utility customers in Maine, has withdrawn its opposition to a multimillion-dollar transaction to build wind turbines across Maine and the Northeast.
Public Advocate Timothy Schneider said the move was made after his office reviewed its previous position and decided that the deal would not undermine state utility regulation or threaten ratepayers with higher energy prices.
“We have a mandate to protect ratepayers,” said Schneider. “That’s what we did,” he said, referring to the legal brief filed on Friday.
The public advocate was a key opponent of the proposed deal when it was considered by the Maine Public Utilities Commission in 2011 and 2012, saying that it would violate the state’s landmark electricity restructuring act and hurt ratepayers by raising prices.
Despite the opposition of the public advocate and several other parties, the PUC approved the transaction in 2012. The public advocate then filed an appeal with the state’s highest court, as did the other parties that opposed it, and the court dealt a blow to the deal by vacating the PUC’s approval and sending it back to the agency for reconsideration.
Now, as the PUC prepares to again review the deal under a different set of standards imposed by the court, the public advocate is no longer among the naysayers.
The transaction is a joint venture of First Wind and Nova Scotia energy giant Emera, and also involves Emera-owned utilities Bangor Hydro and Maine Public Service. The venture, called Northeast Wind, involves nine operating wind projects in the Northeast and the development of more sites.
The public advocate’s office had asserted in legal filings that the deal would hurt ratepayers by violating the state’s restructuring act, which prohibits utilities from owning both transmission and generation because it is anti-competitive and may contribute to high electricity prices.
Those filings were made by a staff attorney when the public advocate’s office was run by Richard Davies, a former Democratic legislator and official in Democratic Gov. John Baldacci’s administration. Schneider, a former energy and utilities lawyer from Portland firm Pierce Atwood, was appointed by Gov. Paul LePage to the position in early 2013 and his appointment was unanimously supported by members of the Legislature’s Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology.
Despite opposition from the public advocate and other groups, as well as its own staff’s opposition to the deal, the PUC approved the Emera-First Wind transaction in 2012. Shortly afterward, the public advocate, Houlton Water Co. and the Industrial Energy Consumer Group, which supports lower energy prices, appealed the approval to the state’s highest court.
Just days after the legal appeals had been filed with the court in 2012, Emera and First Wind consummated the joint venture.
The court ruled unanimously on the appeals in early March, saying that the PUC used the wrong standard to approve the deal. The court vacated the PUC’s approval and told the commission to reconsider the deal using the standard articulated by the court in its opinion.
The new standard, said the court, was whether an affiliation such as that proposed by transmission company Emera and power generator First Wind would lead to favoritism by Emera, giving First Wind an unfair advantage over other generators in getting access to Emera’s transmission lines.
In the two years between the commission’s approval of the deal and now, said Schneider, Emera, First Wind and their related companies had conducted business in ways that alleviated his agency’s concerns about potential favoritism.
“We know things now that we didn’t know then,” said Schneider.
Andrew Landry, an attorney for the Industrial Energy Consumer Group, said that his client’s position on the joint venture had not budged.
“We’re obviously disappointed that they’ve come to a different conclusion than we have,” said Landry. “We think that the transaction is potentially very harmful to customers because of the relationship that’s created between utilities and generators.”