Maine regulators on Wednesday rejected a proposed settlement with a competitive electricity provider, ruling that the agreement calling for refunds to customers and the opportunity to switch to different rate plans falls short of what’s needed to punish the company given that it has drawn hundreds of consumer complaints.

The Public Utilities Commission voted 2-1 against the agreement with Electricity Maine and asked a hearing examiner to set a “timely schedule” to resolve the dispute. The decision will prolong a case that’s been pending since February 2023.

Chairman Philip L. Bartlett II said the settlement is not in the public interest.

“This seems to come down to whether it is better to have an immediate resolution (and) provide significant relief to impacted customers or in light of Electricity Maine’s history of alleged violations to consider further action such as additional compensation for customers, administrative penalties and/or revoking its license to better protect customers in the future,” he said.

“Electricity Maine faced sanctions in the past and was warned that it must comply with applicable rules and statutes,” Bartlett said. “Yet here we are again with another series of serious allegations. My only hesitation about rejecting the stipulation is the time it will take to complete this proceeding.”

Electricity Maine officials said the company is disappointed with the outcome but respects the decision.

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“Electricity Maine will continue to cooperate with the commission’s investigation and is committed to resolving these issues in a process that ensures all perspectives are considered,” a spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.

Electricity Maine, which was founded in Auburn in 2011 and bought by a Houston firm in 2016, has been accused of violating state law and administrative rules by transitioning customer accounts without their consent to a variable rate far higher than the standard offer rate for customers of Central Maine Power Co. and Versant Power. William Harwood, Maine’s public advocate, has battled Electricity Maine, calling for its license to be revoked.

The settlement would have given refunds to about 18,000 customers, ranging from less than $10 to nearly $4,000 based on how much electricity they used.

Commissioner Patrick Scully voted in favor of the settlement “with some meaningful amount of reluctance.”

The agreement reflects “reasonable, although modest steps to address the harm to customers caused by Electricity Maine’s actions in this matter,” he said. The stipulations do not go “as far as they could” to compensate customers, and the behavior by Electricity Maine could support a substantial penalty and possibly a suspension or revocation of Electricity Maine’s ability to do business in Maine, he said.

But settlements generally reflect compromise and the possibility of litigation might ultimately provide customers with “a lesser remedy than the one that is provided here,” Scully said.

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A ‘BAD ACTOR’

Commissioner Carolyn C. Gilbert voted to reject the settlement. She called Electricity Maine a “bad actor” that renewed fixed-rate accounts of customers into plans that charged variable rates without properly notifying customers.

“To me, this is a very, very close call,” she said. “I think I’m just going to have to go with my gut, which is to reject the stipulation and ask staff to expedite the process going forward so we can bring this to a timely conclusion.”

Harwood welcomed the PUC’s decision. “We think it provides an opportunity to come up with a more appropriate punishment for Electricity Maine,” he said in an interview. He repeated his call for the company’s license to be revoked following “very serious violations” and its frequent run-ins with the regulators.

The Legislature and Gov. Janet Mills enacted a law in April that requires competitive electricity providers to disclose to consumers where information is available to compare a service with the standard offer and forbids providers from renewing a contract without advance notice by mail.

The law also limits how much a customer may be billed and it details when a variable rate may be charged.

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