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Maine governor nominates Sappi mill manager for seat on PUC

MAINE (From news reports) -- A veteran of Maine's paper industry has been nominated by Gov. Paul LePage to fill the vacant seat on the state Public Utilities Commission.

LePage on Wednesday nominated Randall Davis of Smithfield, the energy manager at Sappi North America's Somerset paper mill, to fill the vacancy left when Carlisle McLean resigned in June.

Davis has worked for Sappi for 38 years, and has spent the past six years managing electric and natural gas contracts and other energy matters to maximize revenue at the mill.

LePage's action had been anticipated for weeks in energy circles. The Legislature is expected to come back into session next month, presenting a final opportunity this year for the governor to get new nominees confirmed.

Davis will come under close scrutiny, because the three PUC commissioners decide cases involving multimillion-dollar power projects, energy-efficiency spending and other actions that affect what Mainers pay on their utility bills. Most recently, the PUC has been caught up in a controversy about the right level of financial incentives for homeowners who install solar-electric panels. Environmental activists who oppose the PUC's decision have taken that issue to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Because Davis has spent his career in the paper industry, environmental and clean-energy interests are sure to question whether he also will be sensitive to the concerns of residential and small-business utility customers.

The Conservation Law Foundation, which is leading the court action, issued this statement: "The PUC is most effective when it relies on science and economics over political pressure, and we hope Mr. Davis keeps these values in mind in order to provide the best outcome for Maine businesses and families."

Jeff Marks, executive director of the energy, environmental and clean technology business development organization called E2Tech, said the nomination will stir up the debate among natural gas, renewables and efficiency advocates, although Davis and Sappi are involved in all three areas.

"Maine's energy sector is intricately linked to Maine's forestry industry," Marks said. "Maine has high electricity costs relative to other regions in the country, the state is one of the highest renewable-electricity generators in the U.S., and the pulp and paper industry is very energy-intensive. So the governor's decision to nominate an energy manager from one of our remaining major forest products manufacturers is definitely shrewd and intriguing."

Replacing McLean is a priority for LePage. Last February, the governor said he'd fire all three members if he could, even though he had appointed them.

LePage was upset about a policy they enacted meant to reform financial incentives for owners of rooftop solar panels. He said it would lead to a massive expansion of the solar industry and hurt businesses and consumers.

In Davis, LePage apparently believes he has another shot at obtaining a regulator more in line with his priorities of lowering power costs and opposing most renewable energy incentives. And because PUC commissioners are nominated for six-year terms, their influence endures long after the governor has left office.

Davis doesn't have a high public profile, but he's known among energy professionals in the pulp and paper industry.

In a job questionnaire for the PUC position covering professional and business affiliations, Davis notes his affiliation with the Industrial Energy Consumer Group, which represents large power users in Maine, including paper mills, factories and ski resorts. Davis also lists his supervisor, Bob Dorko, a manager at Sappi, as a reference. Dorko is currently the president of the industry group.

Davis is a good choice because he understands the complexities of the regional electric grid and can use that understanding to benefit all consumers, said Tony Buxton, a lawyer who represents the group. That knowledge will be helpful as home and small-business electric customers become able to manage their power use at different times of the day through smart meters, a practice now common in industry.

Buxton agreed its a natural reaction for people to have concerns that Davis would have an industry bias.

"But it will evaporate very quickly," he said. "We are all the same in our relationship to the regional grid. What lowers costs for them lowers costs for everyone else."

Davis will face a public confirmation hearing at the legislative committee that covers energy matters. He also must be confirmed by the Maine Senate.

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