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Voters May Create America's First Statewide Publicly-Owned Power Company
The push for Pine Tree Power is one of the most remarkable consumer campaigns in nearly a century.
By Paul Blest, More Perfect Union
What if you, as a citizen and consumer, had some semblance of ownership over the company you pay your energy bill to every month?
But in Maine, where most power is generated and distributed by two investor-owned corporations, there’s a grassroots effort to try and change this. In November, Maine residents will vote on a referendum to fund a buyout of the electric companies and replace them with a consumer-owned utility called Pine Tree Power.
They’re up against powerful interests that have poured millions into a fear-mongering campaign arguing that public ownership will lead to disastrous consequences for both consumers and the state’s economy. But organizers make the case that a publicly-owned utility will deliver cheaper, more reliable service that’s accountable to Mainers rather than wealthy shareholders — and because of that, better able to adapt to the present and future challenges of energy production.
“What we need is affordable and reliable service in an increasing amount of storms, droughts, and wildfires,” Johanna Bozuwa, the executive director of Climate and Community Project, told More Perfect Union. “Who do we want in charge of our energy transition, us or a multinational corporation? Who's going to make better decisions for people on the ground?”
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The way it works now
Currently, Central Maine Power (CMP) and Versant Power provide electricity to 97 percent of the state. Both companies are primarily owned by investors that have little connection to Maine.
CMP is held by the multi-state corporation Avangrid, the majority of which is owned by Spanish multi-national firm Iberdrola, which itself is controlled by investors including the Qatari Investment Fund, the central bank of Norway, and U.S.-based corporations Goldman Sachs and BlackRock. Versant Power, meanwhile, is effectively owned by the city of Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
(The remaining 3 percent of Maine power is generated by local cooperatives, such as the Eastern Maine Electrical Cooperative, which would continue operating under the Pine Tree Power plan.)
Mainers might not be so bothered by a nesting doll of investment firms that run their electric utilities if the service was both affordable and good. Unfortunately, more often than not, it’s been neither.
Maine consistently ranks as having some of the worst and most frequent blackouts in the country. The state had an average of nearly four lengthy blackouts (lasting more than 14 hours) per year, according to one analysis of federal data from 2015 to 2019. Those have been coupled with higher prices; CMP hiked consumers’ electric bills up 27 percent from last year, according to the Governor’s Energy Office.
Deke Sawyer moved in 2003 to the tiny town of Jackman, Maine, just a 20-minute drive south of the Canadian border. Jackman has a reputation as the “Switzerland of Maine” for its jaw-dropping mountainous landscape, but power in the area is shoddy at best. In 2018, Jackman residents filed a complaint with state regulators against CMP over the “deteriorating reliability” of service.
Sawyer told More Perfect Union he realized just how problematic and even dangerous the frequent power outages can be once his brother-in-law was visiting during a power outage.
“He has a severe case of sleep apnea and had to have a CPAP machine in order to sleep properly. So he stayed awake most of the night until we did finally get the power back on and didn't get much sleep,” Sawyer said. “He said, ‘I didn't dare go to sleep because I've got a severe case. And, uh, the doctors have warned me that it could be terminal if I don't, if I don't wake up.’”
“Up until then, outages were an inconvenience,” Sawyer told More Perfect Union. “But it became a medical issue, and I realized that we are in a community that's getting older every year.”
For years, CMP has been nationally recognized as one of the most unreliable energy providers in the U.S. A survey by JD Power and Associates last year found that Versant had the worst customer satisfaction of any “midsized” utility in the East, defined as having between 100,000 and 499,999 customers — while CMP had the worst customer satisfaction of any large utility in the East.
After the survey was released, CMP’s CEO placed the blame on “challenging times” and pointed to the “increasing burden of the cost of the supply of electricity across the country.”
"My last bill that came in last week was $250. Four years ago it was half of that," Jim Rooney, a retiree from Arundel, Maine, told More Perfect Union. "I'm getting to the point where I'm living on a fixed income. I'm kind of interested in knowing more about Pine Tree Power.”
“A direct say” in how your utility is run
Currently, the only state that’s entirely powered by consumer-owned electric utilities is Nebraska. During the New Deal, Nebraska bought out investor-owned utility companies and replaced them with consumer-owned power districts, rural cooperatives, and municipal-run systems.
Nebraskans have some of the lowest energy bills in the country; as of May 2023, Nebraskans were paying on average $.12/per kilowatt, while Mainers were paying nearly $.30 per kilowatt, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. There are other benefits as well; the elected board of the state’s largest utility, the Nebraska Public Power District, passed a plan in 2021 to fully decarbonize its power sector by 2050, which would make Nebraska the first Republican-controlled state to do so, according to Grist.
Jonathan Fulford, a carpenter in Belfast, Maine, has emerged as a leader in the campaign for Pine Tree Power. Unlike the investor-owned utilities, Fulford said Pine Tree would, similar to the Nebraska Public Power District, be “a non-profit company that will be controlled by the ratepayers here in Maine.”
Decisionmaking would be undertaken by a 13-member board. Seven of those members would be directly elected by Mainers, and those seven would name the other six as “expert members” based on their perspectives from a variety of fields including labor, business, environmental management, and so on.
“We, the ratepayers and the citizens of Maine, [would] get to elect who are seven of the 13 board members,” Fulford said.
The plan would require a buyout of CMP and Versant, but the Pine Tree Power plan proposes to do so with revenue-backed bonds — low-interest rate loans that are already a common way of funding transportation projects such as bridges and public transit systems. The Pine Tree Power campaign points to a 2020 analysis estimating that a plan to operate power through a nonprofit would save $9 billion over the next 30 years.
The corporate owners of CMP and Versant, of course, are not going away quietly.
With still more than two months until the election, Avangrid has pumped more than $18 million into a PAC called Maine Affordable Energy, while ENMAX, Versant’s parent owner, has contributed another $8.4 million to a PAC called Maine Energy Progress.
The money has been spent on a flurry of ads claiming that the plan would cost $13.5 billion, or more than the state budget Gov. Janet Mills signed into law this year. But unlike the state budget, the plan wouldn’t be funded through taxes — not to mention that $13.5 billion is based on what CMP and Versant believe they will be worth when the buyout actually happens, according to a fact check by WGME.
Together, the two companies have spent nearly $27 million to oppose the effort, according to state campaign finance records. Two PACs supporting the referendum, Our Power and Maine’s People’s Alliance, have raised less than $3 million.
There has been little to no public polling so far in the race. But Bozuwa, the Climate and Community Project’s executive director, believes the push for a public-owned power utility will reverberate around the nation.
“We are a pretty purple state, and people across the spectrum see that this is a way for them to take control over their energy future,” Bozuwa told More Perfect Union. “Maine is paving the way for working-class families to have affordable, clean energy.”