Last week, two of the three members of Maine’s Public Utilities Commission voted against permitting the Swans Island Electrical Coop to become part of the Emera Maine system. That decision means hundreds of customers on both Swans and on Frenchboro will continue to have utility bills among the highest in the country.
The reason cited by the two commissioners appears logical, on first examination. They believe the utility’s additional costs should not be borne by Emera’s other ratepayers. But there are numerous examples, both in the energy industry and in the public sector, where society has deemed higher costs for all to be justified when providing services considered basic and necessary for normal living. The question, then, focuses on fairness. Should that response be acceptable in this instance, when there have been so many others throughout the state where cost sharing has been endorsed?
For example, citizen opposition in Bar Harbor forced the relocation of a local major electrical substation project. The final location and design cost extra hundreds of thousands of dollars. That cost will be spread among all Emera ratepayers, not just in Bar Harbor where folks complained.
Highways provide another example. The state deemed extension of the interstate highway all the way to Houlton a worthy endeavor even though traffic on that road north of the Bangor Mall is far less than on Route 3 in Trenton. All Maine taxpayers helped subsidize that extension.
The Maine State Ferry Service’s provision of transportation to year-round offshore island communities requires subsidies of taxpayer money, as user fees would never pay the full cost of that vital service.
Over the last century, Maine has seen a steady decrease in the number of functional offshore island communities. Isolation, transportation difficulties and expensive utilities are among the reasons.
With only a few island communities left, it is disappointing that state regulators would take any action that might weaken these steadfast examples of our state’s traditions: simple, honest living and independence.
When rural electrification was undertaken in the 1930s, the goal was to serve all homes. Society in total would benefit. Lines were run down long, lonely country roads even though unlikely that the expense ever would be recouped. Keeping electricity affordable in places like Swans and Frenchboro should be no different. The high cost of delivering electricity to Maine’s offshore islands is not the result of some careless action taken by residents there. The culprit is geography.
Ironically, other state departments have been working diligently for years to find ways to encourage and support offshore communities. Public Utilities officials in Augusta and folks on the two islands should double down to find a more sensible rate plan that works.