AUGUSTA, Maine — The public advocate may be one of the most important and least-known jobs in Maine’s state government.
Attorney William Harwood said he wants to use the job to make sure Mainers of all incomes can afford their electricity and other utilities.
“Our goal will be to ensure all utility services are affordable, especially to low-income ratepayers,” Harwood told the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities, and Technology Committee.
That committee held the confirmation hearing for Harwood’s nomination to become Maine’s latest public advocate for utility issues.
Committee members praised Harwood’s qualifications — four decades as a Maine energy lawyer, representing utilities, developers, customers, and others in the process.
He is a senior advisor to Gov. Janet Mills on energy issues, working closely with the Governor’s Energy Office on various topics.
Harwood said he is trained to advocate for clients and that his clients will be Mainers.
Making electricity and other services affordable is essential, he said.
“[So] that Mainers are never forced to choose between paying for necessities, such as food, and medicine, and paying their utility bills,” Harwood said.
Committee members from both parties agreed that the advocate’s job is becoming more vital than ever, especially as the state moves to get more electricity from renewable sources, such as wind and solar.
“It’s going to be an extremely important job,” Sen. Mark Lawrence, D-Eliot, co-chair of the committee, said.
“Particularly if we continue on this path moving us to a renewable energy portfolio. It will be an even more important job for the public advocate to help oversee that, carry out the goal of the state moving us to a renewable energy portfolio, but also do it at a price that is reasonable,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence also said enduring a stable and sustainable grid is also essential.
Rep. Steven Norton, R-Dexter, agreed with the importance of the advocate job and said Harwood is the most qualified candidate to come before the committee in the years he’s been a member.
He, too, expressed concern about keeping electricity affordable as Maine shifts more generation to wind and solar. The smaller projects, he said, often are more expensive. And he said that could place a burden on people with lower incomes.
“I think that’s going to be critical going forward as the advocate and his office look at what’s on the horizon in terms of increased cost as we move to renewable generation,” he said.
Foster specifically mentioned concerns about higher electricity rates resulting from solar projects using net energy billing, which the Legislature has debated several times.
Net energy billing is supported by many in the solar industry as a way to encourage solar community projects.
Both lawmakers supported Harwood’s nomination, as did the other nine committee members present for the hearing. The whole state Senate will vote on the nomination on Jan. 26.