Backers of consumer-owned power utility move to put question on Maine ballot

Source: BY TUX TURKEL. Portland Press Herald • Posted: Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Supporters of replacing Maine’s investor-owned electric companies with an elected power authority filed a request with the Secretary of State’s Office on Sept. 18.

Advocates for buying out Maine’s two investor-owned electric utilities and replacing them with a ratepayer-owned entity have begun an effort to bring the question to voters next year.

The supporters of a consumer-owned power authority filed a request on Sept. 18 with the Secretary of State’s Office. It reads:

“Do you want to create a not-for-profit, consumer-owned utility called the Maine Power Delivery Authority, to replace the two investor-owned utilities known as Central Maine Power and Versant (Power) and to be governed by a board that is elected by Maine voters and required to focus on lower rates, better reliability and Maine’s climate goals?”

The secretary of state has until Oct. 9 to rule on the language. If approved in its current form, the advocates could begin circulating the petition and collecting signatures.

Ratepayer unrest following various missteps at CMP, including billing mismanagement and delays in power restoration after storms, have given new energy to efforts to create a power utility owned by its customers.

A bill in the Legislature seeking to lay the groundwork for a transition to the public power authority was introduced last winter. But the measure was belatedly reduced to a study in July by its lead sponsor, Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, to win the endorsement of a legislative committee. Unless lawmakers reconvene before year’s end, the bill will die and will need to be taken up in 2021.

One of the signers of the referendum request is John Brautigam, a former lawmaker and assistant attorney general. He now serves as the head of Maine Power For Maine People, an advocacy group promoting consumer-owned power.

“We are entering the era of beneficial electrification, which promises great benefits for climate, jobs, and our economy,” Brautigam said in a statement Tuesday. “Now we need to have a conversation about how we finance and manage the grid expansion that is coming. A consumer-owned utility offers lower-cost financing, saving billions, and also puts Mainers in the driver’s seat.”

Consumer-owned power isn’t a new concept in the United States. Roughly 900 not-for-profit cooperatives serve half the country. In Maine, small consumer-owned power companies include Kennebunk Light & Power District, Madison Electric Works and Houlton Water Co.

The consumer-owned power authority being proposed in Maine wouldn’t be operated by a government entity. It would have an elected board of directors and would be professionally managed. Berry and other consumer-owned power advocates envisioned a body called the Maine Power Delivery Authority that would use low-interest revenue bonds to buy the infrastructure of CMP and Versant, including poles, wires and substations. Together, the two utilities are valued at roughly $4.5 billion.

Any referendum question on consumer-owned power would be strongly opposed by the utilities.

David Flanagan, CMP’s executive chairman, said customer surveys indicate that many people are extremely skeptical of what he described as government involvement in power delivery. He said he expects that “even if it gets enough signatures” to get on the ballot, the measure would be defeated by voters.

“We may not be perfect,” Flanagan said, “but people have doubts the government can do a better job.”