Originally published at ILSR.org
Electric customers in Maine, who are fed up with lousy utility service, can use a ballot initiative to take back their power.
For this episode of the Local Energy Rules Podcast, a rebroadcast from the Building Local Power Podcast, host John Farrell speaks with Maine State Representative Seth Berry. Berry was the Maine House sponsor of LD 1708, a bill to establish a consumer-owned utility, and serves as Chair of the Maine Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities, and Technology. Farrell and Berry discuss Our Power Maine: the ongoing initiative to kick investor-owned utilities to the curb and establish a consumer-owned utility in Maine.
Listen to the full episode and explore more resources below, including a transcript and summary of the conversation.
Mainers Dissatisfied with their Electric Utilities
Most Mainers (people who live in Maine) are served by one of two investor-owned electric utilities: Central Maine Power or Versant Power. These two companies have “failed Maine,” says Berry. They have hiked up rates, dragged their heels on solar, and are two of the least reliable utilities in the nation. Central Maine Power, says Berry, has ranked last in customer satisfaction ratings for three years running. Versant Power is not much better, claiming the third-to-last place.
Berry believes these utilities are failing Maine because their decisions are made overseas. Iberdrola, a multinational corporation based in Spain, holds the majority share in Central Maine Power. Versant Power, formerly Emera Maine, was purchased by Enmax in 2020. Enmax is a Canadian corporation.
“There’s no question that the people of Maine are fed up with these utilities and their poor performance. And I believe the people of Maine also understand what’s really driving it, which is some larger economic and governance issues.”
After learning about the success of Vermont utility Green Mountain Power, which is a certified B-corporation, Berry started thinking about what alternatives are out there.
Utility Monopolies are Too Big to Fail
Monopoly utilities have a sweet deal. They have cornered the market, leaving customers with no alternatives. They are selling an essential service. Lastly, they have a guaranteed return on their investments. This final point is crucial: it gives utilities the incentive to build things, regardless of need.
State regulators have some power to reign them in, but the regulatory process was invented by the utilities in the first place. In many places, the regulatory system is “rigged,” says Berry. Berry lists several tactics utilities use to avoid meaningful regulation: hiding the ball, lawyering up, threatening to sue, clever engineering, and clever work of the tax code. They also tend to rely on the myth of the regulatory compact.
“There is an incredible consolidation that has happened in the industry… they’ve really got us right where they want us, and the only way we break free of that is to change the business model.”
Pine Tree Power
Berry became interested in consumer-owned utilities because, as he describes, they are the point at which energy, equity, and democracy meet. He also found out that consumer-owned utilities in Maine have better rates (58% lower), better service, and are more reliable.
In the 2021 legislative session, Berry sponsored a bill (H.P 1269) to establish a consumer-owned utility called Pine Tree Power. This “municipal hybrid,” as proposed by the Legislature, would buy out Maine’s investor-owned utilities and pass the power to consumers.
Mainers, through their appointments to the board, could get more of what they want from a consumer-owned power provider. This includes better customer service, more renewable energy, and even using electric poles to install municipal broadband internet.
Read about how Local Control Clears the Path to a Clean Energy Future.
After it passed both houses of the Legislature, Maine’s governor vetoed the Pine Tree Power bill. Though it was a bipartisan effort, there was not enough support to override the veto. Still, Our Power Maine has hope for making Maine’s utilities consumer-owned.
Putting Consumer Ownership On the Ballot
In Maine, advocates can take proposed law straight to the voters through a ballot initiative. Direct democracy has a history of success in Maine. Through ballot initiatives, Mainers have established ranked choice voting, increased the minimum wage, and created a clean election system.
Thanks to Maine’s clean elections, in which candidates receive public funds if they refuse private election contributions, Berry says the legislature is “much more capable of doing the right thing.”
It has been nearly two decades since a community has municipalized its electric utility. Click here for a summary of municipalization attempts across the nation.
Our Power is collecting signatures and plans to bring Pine Tree Power to voters in November 2022.
“We’re hopeful that we can bring this forward, again, directly to the people. And that’s where often the biggest, boldest changes in Maine history at least have happened. And we want to be a proving ground for this concept nationally. We hope that we can help to pave the way for others.”
See these resources for more behind the story:
- Learn more about the coalition behind Our Power Maine and how to get involved.
- Read An Act To Create the Pine Tree Power Company, which passed the Maine Legislature but was vetoed by the Governor.
- Find a summary of the Bluefield and Hope SCOTUS decisions that laid the framework for utility regulation and compensation: Utility Rates: Fair, Just and Reasonable
- Learn more about municipal broadband networks from ILSR’s Broadband Initiative and our Community Broadband Bits podcast.
For concrete examples of how towns and cities can take action toward gaining more control over their clean energy future, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.
Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.
This is the 140th episode of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.
Local Energy Rules is Produced by ILSR’s John Farrell and Maria McCoy. Audio engineering by Drew Birschbach.
Featured image credit: Tony Webster via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)