Editor’s Note: The following story first appeared in The Maine Monitor’s free environmental newsletter, Climate Monitor, that is delivered to inboxes for every Friday morning. Sign up for the free newsletter to get important environmental news by registering at this link.
It’s now January, and much as it pains me to say, Election Day will be here before we know it. Mainers can expect to hear a lot in the coming months about two likely ballot initiatives that deal with electric utilities — specifically, questions of whether and how to replace the investor-owned Central Maine Power and Versant Power with, as the Secretary of State’s office plans to phrase it, “a new quasi-governmental owned power company governed by an elected board.” AKA: Pine Tree Power or the consumer-owned utility debate.
This fight is already well underway and promises to be bitterly contentious, down to the very language we use to talk about it. The main proposal would create a privately-owned nonprofit with a publicly elected board, which would effectively take over the infrastructure and workforces of Central Maine Power and Versant Power. CMP has backed a related referendum, just submitted to the Secretary of State for certification, that would limit the ability of this new kind of entity to borrow more than $1 billion without voter approval. Both initiatives will go to voters in November if the legislature doesn’t pass them.
As in the case of 2021’s referendum against the CMP corridor transmission line, we’re facing a perfect storm of potential voter confusion here — wonkiness, double negatives, competing language, dire political claims. There’s much more in-depth reporting and fact-checking to be done on the practical implications of both of these proposals. But today, I want to talk broadly about the stakes.
The wonderful editor under whom I learned to report on climate change — Cori Princell, now of the New England News Collaborative (hi Cori!) — always told me to remind people of the stakes. What is actually on the line when we debate what kind of entity should be in charge of how we get our electricity? One answer is climate action — who benefits, who pays and who has a seat at the table as we transition off fossil fuels, and how quickly it happens.
Rising carbon emissions are already causing rising sea levels, worsening storms, droughts, fires and deadly heat. Our electric service providers have a huge role to play in forestalling these impacts — these utilities are of almost singular importance in the push to electrify our homes, cars and other parts of life now powered by oil and gas.
Besides accelerating or delaying our progress toward a livable future, the way we handle this transition might line foreign investors’ pockets, make renewable energy savings more or less accessible, or pile onto the electric bills that many Mainers already struggle to pay every month.
Government or corporate control
Ania Wright, the youth representative to the Maine Climate Council, a Sierra Club organizer and one of the lead petitioners on the Pine Tree Power proposal, argues that a nonprofit utility will be able to invest more efficiently — with more public input and accountability — than a traditional utility can in the electric grid overhaul needed to facilitate decarbonization.
“If we choose to stick with CMP and Versant, all of us Maine ratepayers will bear twice the cost for that investment,” Wright said in an emailed statement in response to questions from The Maine Monitor. “No profit-driven shareholders or Christmas bonuses for CEOs means more money in your pockets each month, and more money in our communities too. This affordable investment … means lower rates, even while some of those rates go to pay off the initial purchase price.”
Wright’s campaign touts a 2021 economic analysis that quantifies these lower rates. They point to several small communities with consumer-owned utilities that they say have done well on renewable energy adoption. And they note that Nebraska, which has all community-run utilities, is an outlier among red states in setting climate goals.
Willy Ritch, who leads the CMP-funded campaign against the consumer-owned utility and in favor of the “No Blank Checks” referendum on borrowing limits, had answers to these examples. In response to emailed questions, he argued that these small towns are too small to make a fair comparison to Maine, and said Nebraska and others on the list are still using plenty of carbon-heavy fuels.
He shared a 2021 Wall Street Journal article about obstacles to renewables adoption by rural electric cooperatives — and another, from 2018 in Grist, where the former mayor of Boulder, Co., expressed regret that his city sunk time into working against its utilities instead of with them in this arena. (The Pine Tree Power campaign argued that Boulder’s consumer-owned utility effort helped push the city’s investor-owned utility forward on climate change.)
Ritch also noted that utilities don’t have direct control over the fuel mix powering the grid. New England’s energy system is “deregulated,” meaning a company like CMP can’t own both energy generation facilities and the poles and wires to distribute that energy. The same would be true for the nonprofit model.
Still, through lobbying in Augusta and more opaque venues like the New England Power Pool, these utilities retain plenty of influence over energy policy and grid planning decisions — about, for example, paying to keep fossil fuel plants online in the name of reliability. (You can read a story I did in 2018 about why this matters, and learn how climate activists recently got a foot in the door of New England grid oversight.)
Ritch argues that a publicly elected utility board would be at risk for political corruption.
“Putting elected politicians in charge of the grid means special interests will be able to use campaign contributions to get their way when it comes to how we run the electric grid,” Ritch said. “If a fossil fuel company that doesn’t want us to switch to renewables wants to get their people elected to a government-run power board, they can pour money into their campaigns.”
Political status quo a mixed bag
Under Gov. Janet Mills, Maine has been rated a leader on climate action, with relatively rapid renewable energy growth and a comprehensive, aggressive decarbonization plan. CMP and Versant have been part of this, with recent developments like new rates designed to incentivize and adapt to electrification.
But they’ve also struggled. CMP, for example, has acknowledged in Public Utilities Commission proceedings that it did not do enough to prepare for what’s now a backlog of requests to add new solar arrays to the grid. In 2019, lobbyists for CMP and Versant raised concerns about the state incentives that led to this solar boom.
Likewise, there was intense debate over a bill last year, which I covered for Spectrum News Maine, that sought more accountability measures for CMP and Versant — seen by some as Gov. Mills’ answer to the consumer-owned utility plan. The law that eventually passed requires more climate planning by the investor-owned utilities and includes a path to a replacement if they fail.
Political influence may be inevitable — but Seth Berry, the former state legislator who got an initial version of the Pine Tree Power plan passed in 2020 (it was vetoed by Mills), argued voters should take control where they can.
“We would never turn over our schools, roads or hospitals to a foreign, for-profit monopoly, and the time has come to restore local control to our energy grid too,” Berry said. “Some things are just too important.”
Berry correctly anticipated that his campaign’s opponents would raise fears about a time-wasting legal battle that will be sure to follow if voters approve Pine Tree Power. Willy Ritch nodded to this: “Time is not on our side in the fight to meet our clean energy goals,” he said. “The legal and bureaucratic process [of implementing a consumer-owned utility] would take years and years to resolve. That’s lost time when we would be fighting over who owns the poles and wires instead of making the necessary improvements to the grid.”
Andrew Blunt, the executive director of the Pine Tree Power campaign, described this as “CMP’s threats to break the dishes on their way out of the kitchen.” He said PUC analyses of the plan show “there are no issues like those that tripped up other proposals of this kind, and we are fully confident that the transition will be expeditious.”
As this campaign heats up, the devil will be in these kinds of details as I and others keep trying to pin down the truths behind the rhetoric. I hope to have much more to share with you before November about the costs, benefits and inevitable trade-offs of both the Pine Tree Power proposal and the status quo.
Update: This story has been updated to include a statement from Maine Energy Progress, a ballot question committee funded by Versant Power.
To read the full edition of this newsletter, see Climate Monitor: The “Pine Tree Power” referenda and Maine’s climate future.
Reach Annie Ropeik with story ideas at: email@example.com.