Editor’s note: The following story first appeared in The Maine Monitor Climate Monitor, a free environmental newsletter delivered to your mailbox every Friday morning. Sign up for our free newsletter to receive important environmental news by signing up at this link.
It’s January, and as much as it pains me to say it, election day will be here before we know it. Miners can expect to hear a lot in the coming months about two likely ballot initiatives related to electric utilities — specifically whether and how to replace investor-owned Central Maine Power and Versant Power with what the secretary of state’s office plans to say. “a new quasi-public energy company run by an elected board.” AKA: Pine Tree Power or the Consumer Owned Utilities Debate.
That fight is already underway, and it promises to be fiercely contested, right down to the language we use to talk about it. The main proposal would create a private, nonprofit entity with a publicly elected board that would effectively take over the infrastructure and workforce of Central Maine Power and Versant Power. CMP supported a related referendum, just submitted to the Secretary of State for approval, that would limit the ability of this new type of entity to borrow more than $1 billion without voter approval. Both initiatives will go to voters in November if the Legislature fails to pass them.
As with the 2021 referendum against the CMP Corridor Transmission Line, here we are faced with a perfect storm of potential voter confusion—fragility, double negatives, competing language, scary political claims. The practical implications of both of these proposals require much more in-depth reporting and fact-checking. But today I want to talk broadly about betting.
The wonderful editor under whom I learned to report on climate change—Corey Princel, now at the New England News Collaborative (hi, Cory!)—always told me to remind people about the stakes. What is it really about when we discuss which entity should be responsible for how we get our electricity? One answer is climate action – who benefits, who pays, and who has a seat at the table when we divest from fossil fuels, and how quickly.
Increasing carbon emissions are already causing sea levels to rise, more storms, droughts, fires and deadly heat waves. Our electric utilities have a huge role to play in preventing these consequences—those utilities are almost singularly important in the quest to electrify our homes, cars, and other parts of life that now run on oil and gas.
In addition to accelerating or delaying our progress toward a livable future, how we handle this transition could line the pockets of foreign investors, make the savings of renewable energy more or less affordable, or add to electric bills that many Maine residents already struggle with. paid every month.
Government or corporate control
Anya Wright, a youth representative for the Maine Climate Council, a Sierra Club organizer and one of the lead proponents of Pine Tree Power’s proposal, says a nonprofit utility would be able to invest more effectively — with more public involvement and accountability — than a traditional utility could. undertake the overhaul of the electricity grid needed to facilitate decarbonisation.
“If we choose to go with CMP and Versant, all of us Maine ratepayers will be on the hook for double the cost of this 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 every month, and more money in our communities. This affordable investment … means lower rates, even if some of those rates go toward paying off the original purchase price.”
The Wright Company is touting a 2021 economic analysis that quantifies those low rates. They point to several small communities with consumer-owned utilities that they say have done well in using renewable energy. And they note that Nebraska, which has all public utilities, is the standout among red states in setting climate goals.
Willie Ritch, who runs a CMP-funded campaign against consumer-owned utilities and advocates for the No Blank Checks borrowing limit referendum, has found answers to these examples. In response to emailed questions, he argued that those small towns are too small to be fairly compared to Maine, and said Nebraska and others on the list still use a lot of carbon fuels.
He shared a 2021 Wall Street Journal article on the obstacles to rural electric cooperatives’ adoption of renewable energy — and another from 2018 in Grist, where the former mayor of Boulder, Co., lamented that his city was wasting time on work against their utilities, not with them in this arena. (Pine Tree Power argued that Boulder’s consumer utility helped push the city’s investor-owned utility to fight climate change.)
Ritch also noted that utilities do not have direct control over the fuel mix that powers the power grid. New England’s power system is “deregulated,” meaning that a company like CMP cannot own both the facilities that generate power and the poles and wires to distribute that power. The same will be true for the non-profit model.
Still, through lobbying in Augusta and more opaque venues like the New England Power Pool, these utilities retain a lot of influence over energy policy and grid planning decisions — such as whether to pay to keep fossil-fueled plants running. fuel, online in the name of reliability. (You can read a story I wrote in 2018 about why this matters, and learn how climate activists recently broke in the door of New England’s grid oversight.)
Ritch argued that this political reality cuts both ways — that an elected Pine Tree Power board would be no better than CMP or Versant in its propensity for potential corruption.
“Putting elected politicians in charge of the grid means that 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 go to renewable energy wants their people elected to the state energy board, they can put money into their companies.”
The political status quo is ambiguous
Under Governor Janet Mills, Maine has been recognized as a leader in climate action with relatively rapid growth in renewable energy and a comprehensive, aggressive decarbonization plan. CMP and Versant have been part of this, with recent developments such as new rates designed to encourage and adapt to electrification.
But they also struggled. CMP, for example, admitted in a Public Utilities Commission hearing that it had not done enough to prepare for the current backlog of requests to add new solar panels to the grid. In 2019, CMP and Versant lobbyists raised concerns about the government incentives that led to this solar boom.
Likewise, there was intense debate last year over a bill I covered for Spectrum News Maine that called for more accountability measures for CMP and Versant — some saw it as Gov. Mills’ response to a consumer-owned utility plan. The law that eventually passed requires more climate planning by investor-owned utilities and includes a path to replacement if they fail.
Political influence may be inevitable, but Seth Berry, the former state lawmaker who got the original version of the Pine Tree Power plan passed in 2020 (it was vetoed by Mills), argued that voters should take control where they can.
“We would never hand over our schools, roads or hospitals to a foreign commercial monopoly, and it’s time to restore local control over our energy grid,” Berry said. “Some things are too important.”
Berry correctly anticipated that opponents of his campaign would raise concerns about the time-wasting of the legal battle that would surely begin if voters approved Pine Tree Power. Willie Ritch nodded at that: “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] will take years and years to resolve. It’s a waste of time if we fight over who owns the poles and wires instead of making the necessary improvements to the network.”
Andrew Blunt, chief executive of Pine Tree Power, described it as “CMP threatening to smash dishes on the way out of the kitchen”. He said the PUC’s analysis of the plan shows that “there are no problems similar to those that have caused other proposals of this type, and we have every confidence that the transition will be swift.”
As this campaign heats up, the devil will be in the details as I and others continue to try to determine the truth behind this rhetoric. I hope to be able to share a lot more with you before November about the costs, benefits, and inevitable trade-offs of both the Pine Tree Power proposal and the status quo.
To read the full edition of this newsletter, see Climate Monitor: The “Pine Tree Power” Referendum and Maine’s Climate Future.
Contact Annie Ropeik with story ideas at: email@example.com.