What the Failed Pine Tree Power Proposal in Maine Could Have Accomplished
Maine residents voted no to the proposal to take over its two largest corporate-owned utilities. Advocates say it would have helped keep electric rates low, drive renewable energy initiatives and relieve billing and outage concerns.
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Mike De Socio is a CNET contributor who writes about energy, personal finance and climate change. His path in journalism has taken him through almost every part of the newsroom, earning awards along the way from the Boston Press Photographers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. As an independent journalist, his work has also been published in Bloomberg, The Guardian, Fortune and beyond.
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If it had passed, the vote would have replaced the state's investor-owned electric utilities, Central Maine Power and Versant Power, with a publicly owned alternative named Pine Tree Power, the first of its kind in the US. The move also could have set the stage for other states to follow suit.
The ballot question created a fiery debate, with even environmental nonprofits disagreeing on which option was better.
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"The consumer-owned utility model has uncertainty and change attached to it," said Peter LaFond, senior policy advocate and Maine program director for the nonpartisan Acadia Center.
LaFond, who did not endorse either side, believes the ballot initiative was more of "an indication that change is needed."
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The Pine Tree Power proposal surfaced after strong criticism of Central Maine Power, a corporate-owned utility that consumers say has a history of slow response time to outages and poor billing experiences.
Supporters of the Pine Tree Power initiative said CMP caused roadblocks to renewable power projects. "Things need to be governed differently to move forward into a green energy future that both reduces energy costs and reduces the carbon footprint," LaFond said.
If Maine had succeeded in creating a statewide public utility, it could have spurred similar ballot measures around the country. "It's a great template and model for other states to replicate," said Candice Fortin, the US campaigns manager for the climate activism group 350.org, which endorsed the public option in Maine.
Opponents of the initiative, such as Maine Gov. Janet Mills, urged residents to vote against it, arguing that it "leaves our utilities in a dangerous state of limbo when we can least afford it."
Here's how to make sense of what happened in Maine -- and what it means for all consumers.
What is a publicly owned utility?
The electric utilities in Maine are a lot like those in other states: They're private companies whose motivation is to generate profit for investors (i.e. shareholders).
These issues came into sharper focus after both power companies were purchased by new parent companies -- CMP by Avangrid, and Versant by Enmax. The perception is that the new owners are even less sensitive to Maine residents, and even more profit-driven.
"That's money that could be going to public funds in Maine," said Fortin.
A publicly owned utility would operate a lot differently.
If Pine Tree Power had been approved by voters, it would have become the state's new, consumer-owned electric company. In this model, there would be no profit motive, and it would be governed by an elected board that's accountable to the state's residents, according to Fortin.
What the supporters of a public utility say
The model that Pine Tree Power has proposed could translate to a number of benefits for consumers, Fortin said.
The most attractive change would be lower electricity rates, because the power company would no longer be generating profits to send to investors, and could therefore lower power bills.
"Rates going down is a pretty huge thing for some communities," said Fortin, especially people feeling forced to choose between paying rent or utilities.
Advocates say that Pine Tree Power would also enable a faster transition to clean energy production in the state. If Mainers wanted to invest in solar or wind projects, for example, "there's a pathway to start to advocate for that," Fortin said. She contrasts that with the current system, in which, the environmental group Sierra Club says, CMP and Versant have "delayed and overcharged for clean energy projects."
Although the utility would be publicly owned and controlled, "a private grid operator would be contracted through competitive solicitation and be required to retain the existing workforce," according to the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which has endorsed Pine Tree Power.
What does the opposition say?
Not surprisingly, CMP and Versant were strongly opposed to the ballot initiative, and spent more than $15 million lobbying against it, according to Maine Public.
One sticking point is the cost involved in switching utilities: Critics say it would cost $13.5 billion for Pine Tree Power (and therefore, taxpayers) to take over the investor-owned utilities; supporters argue that the change would ultimately save residents $9 billion over 30 years.
CMP, via the political action committee Maine Affordable Energy, also says a publicly owned utility would put reliability at risk, and potentially subject power distribution to a political process rife with delays and lawsuits.
Mills, Maine's Democratic governor, opposed Pine Tree Power. "Question 3 is a hostile take-over of our utilities with eminent domain, we are guaranteed to go to court and to be tied up in litigation for years, if not decades," Mills said in a radio address in September.
So far, there is no statewide example to mirror what Pine Tree Power is proposing -- it would be a first for the nation. The closest comparison is Nebraska, which has relied entirely on consumer-owned power companies since 1946. The difference is that Nebraska doesn't have one single publicly owned utility, but rather 166 community-owned utilities, according to the Bangor Daily News.
Advocates point to the fact that Nebraska has some of the lowest electricity prices in the nation, while Maine is currently the fifth most expensive state for electricity, according to the US Energy Information Administration. (It's worth noting: Nebraska relies heavily on coal for its electricity, while Pine Tree Power aims to rely primarily on renewable energy.)
What do I need to do as a consumer?
"There's a lot of debates happening right now," Fortin said. "Show up to those spaces. Ask those hard questions, and get answers in real time."
But the vote isn't where this issue ends. Residents will still need to remain involved if they want their voice to be heard in the future of Maine's energy decisions.
"Regardless of the outcome of the vote, things need to change," LaFond said. "If we're going to meet consumer, climate and energy goals, we have to move forward with a utility system that's responsive to those."