Maine residents are set to vote in November on whether the state should replace two investor-owned utilities with a new non-profit power company—with wide-reaching implications for consumer electricity bills and Maine’s climate fight.
“Maine has some of the nation’s highest electricity rates and worst grid reliability,” reports the Washington Post. Two questions in an upcoming vote will determine whether an energy non-profit is the solution to these problems.
Question 3 on the ballot asks voters: “Do you want to create a new power company governed by an elected board to acquire and operate existing for-profit electricity transmission and distribution facilities in Maine?”
“In other words, it asks voters whether they want to buy out Central Maine Power (CMP) and Versant, which together meet more than 96% of the state’s electricity demand, and establish a new non-profit utility called Pine Tree Power,” writes the Post.
Pine Tree proponents say it will save money, end foreign ownership, and replace a company that has campaigned against renewables. The ballot follows former state representative Seth Berry’s failed legislative attempt to create Pine Tree Power in place of CMP and Versant. He said the companies had “failed Maine” by burdening residents with high rates and poor reliability, while being slow to accommodate renewable energy sources.
Governor Janet Mills vetoed that bill in 2021, saying she had a variety of concerns about it, but also urged CMPand Versant to fix their “abysmal” performance.
Pine Tree proponents say the two electric companies won’t be able to do better because their decisions are made outside the United States. CMP is a subsidiary of Avangrid, which is owned by Spanish multinational Iberdola, while Versant is owned by ENMAX, a Canadian utility headquartered in Calgary. Buying them out would save ratepayers US$9 billion over 30 years, proponents estimate.
Opponents say the price tag will saddle Maine with $13.5-billion in debt, with no clear way to pay it off, and that legal issues will follow. Mills warned the prospect of years of litigation “threatens to set back the progress we are making in modernizing the electric grid to achieve clean energy goals and address climate change.”
A group of nine Maine mayors have also expressed fears of losing property taxes if Question 3 passes, despite legislative language to prevent that.
“No matter how much we hear from both sides, there are no definitive answers to what the impact is going to be on rates, how much it’s going to cost, the legality of it,” Kevin Miller, capitol reporter for Maine Public, said during a radio discussion. Both sides have “widely competing claims” drawn from different studies.
The ‘Most Important’ Climate Vote
But supporters and foes agree on one thing, writes the Post: “the stakes for the climate could be high.”
Maine utilities aren’t allowed to generate their own electricity, but they are responsible for connecting renewables to the grid, the news story explains. Supporters of the ballot measure say CMP and Versant have been slow to connect rooftop solar panels, and have used their political clout to lobby against climate action.
“This is the most important climate election in the country this year,” said Lucy Hochschartner, deputy campaign manager and spokesperson for the Pine Tree Power campaign. “CMP is one of the biggest anti-climate lobbyists in the state of Maine.”
In an email to the Post, CMP spokesperson Jon Breedreplied: “As a company, CMP strongly supports Maine’s clean energy transition and Maine’s climate action goals.”
CMP—which killed a pro-rooftop solar bill in 2017, according to watchdog group Energy and Policy Institute—pushed to add another question to the ballot as a “spoiler measure.” The resulting Question 1 could act as a backstop if Question 3 is passed by requiring a second round of voting before approving “quasi-governmental entities and all consumer-owned electric utilities from taking on more than $1 billion in debt.”
“It basically says if you authorize Question 3, we will get another chance to vote on how much it costs,” explained Steve Mistler, chief political correspondent at Maine Public. “And that of course, as you just heard, is very much in dispute.”