Viewpoint: It’s time to democratize the grid 



By Larry Gilman 

Maine, land of curious superlatives: Most forest coverage of any state (90 percent). Whitest. Most geriatric. The only state to border just one other. The only one-syllable state. Slightly more coastline than California. More lobster than God’s own kitchen. 

We are also one of the worst five U.S. states for number and length of power outages per customer. We have the country’s fourth-slowest internet and its most-hated and third-most-hated electric utilities, CMP and Versant, according to surveys by J. D. Power & Associates.

Maine gets bad service because CMP and Versant are for-profit, investor-owned companies that only exist to extract as much money from Maine as possible. Providing service is just a means to that end. When a maker of shoes or cars wants your money they have to make better shoes or cars than their competitors, but CMP and Versant have no competitors, since there is only physical room for one network of poles and wires, so they know they can provide minimal service without facing any worse consequence than scolding and leash-yanking by state regulators. Result: bad service. Nor do these privileged profiteers have any built-in motive to help Maine meet our climate-change mitigation goals or smooth the way for high-speed internet providers, who need affordable, timely access to poles but aren’t getting it. 

Pitting state regulators against for-profit monopolists is like driving with your brakes on. While most U.S. investor-owned utilities do a better job than Maine’s, nonprofit consumer-owned utilities (COUs) – which serve tens of millions of Americans, including the whole state of Nebraska and almost 100 Maine towns – do a better job still. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, COUs provide significantly more reliable power than investor-owned utilities. And they do so at 13 percent lower average cost. 

There is, therefore, an alternative to CMP and Versant: a Maine COU. A bill recently introduced by Rep. Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham), LD 1708, would give us a chance to vote in November for a referendum establishing a COU, Pine Tree Power. On June 1, the bill was passed out of the joint committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology with a bipartisan 10-3 vote in favor, mirroring Mainers’ strong public support for a COU (75 percent in favor, 10 percent against, 15 percent undecided, according to a May poll by SurveyUSA). The Legislature will vote soon on the bill, though as of this writing, a date has not been set. 

Versant and CMP will say anything, no matter how twisted or false, to stay in business. For example, they harp on fears of a “government takeover” of the grid. This takes some chutzpah, considering that Versant is wholly owned by the government of Calgary, Canada and CMP largely by the governments of Qatar and Norway, which are among the largest shareholders of CMP’s Spain-based parent company. 

Pine Tree Power won’t establish government ownership, it will end it. It will be a regulated nonprofit corporation that uses no tax dollars and is run by a seven-member board of Mainers elected by Mainers. (Governor Mills has complained that the board members won’t be required to have “qualifications,” but then neither does a governor, which she seems OK with.) Utility workers will keep their jobs and contracts and, as a nonprofit, the company will do its routine borrowing at lower interest rates than CMP and Versant, saving Maine billions.

When CMP and Versant stab the fear-of-government button over and over again, they expect you to forget that in a democracy you yourself are, or should be, the government. So stand up and govern. Give your elected officials, including Gov. Mills, an earful. Support the establishment of Pine Tree Power, a consumer-owned utility of which you will be part owner, whose board you will help elect, whose sole mission is to benefit you. 

Want higher reliability, lower rates, systematic support for high-speed internet, climate action and an end to vampire monopoly?  Then take it. 

 

Larry Gilman lives in Southwest Harbor.

SOURCES 

• Maine among one of the worst five states for power outages: “U.S. customers experienced an average of nearly six hours of power interruptions in 2018,” June 1, 2020, https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=43915. Fir my claim that Maine is “consistently” in this class, compare to last 5 years of these data.

• Maine has fourth-slowest internet of any state: https://www.highspeedinternet.com/resources/fastest-slowest-internet

• Unpopularity of CMP and Versant per J D Power survey: https://ourpowermaine.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/jd-power-utility-consumer-satisfaction-2020.pdf

• COUs provide more reliable power than investor-owned utilities: This according to the Energy Information Administration’s Annual Electric Power Industry Report, Form EIA-861 detailed data files ( https://www.eia.gov/electricity/data/eia861/ ). See also EIA report, “U.S. customers experienced an average of nearly six hours of power interruptions in 2018,” June 1, 2020. At https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=43915.

• COUs provide cheaper power than investor-owned utilities: https://www.publicpower.org/public-power/stats-and-facts and sources linked therefrom.

• COUs serve 10s of millions already: see p. 10 of https://www.publicpower.org/public-power/stats-and-facts

• Maine COUs provide cheaper power than CMP/Versant: See information given on pp. 3-5 of https://ourpowermaine.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Consumer-Owned-Utility-Whitepaper.pdf .

• What Pine Tree Power would be and do, how it would be governed, funded, etc.: see the legislation at http://legislature.maine.gov/bills/display_ps.asp?snum=130&paper=HP1269.

• Re. 10-3 vote: the vote was widely reported as 9-2, but votes from 2 absent committee members later shifted the totals to 10-3.

• Poll showing strong public support for Pine Tree Power: https://ourpowermaine.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Survey-USA-Pollster-Memo.pdf

• Gov. Mills complains that elected COU board members would (like her) not need “qualifications”: see at timestamp 9:41 of interview, https://podcasts.google.com/feed/aHR0cHM6Ly9tcGJuLmRydXBhbC5wdWJsaWNicm9hZGNhc3RpbmcubmV0L3BvZGNhc3RzLzcvcnNzLnhtbA/episode/MDAwMDAxNzktY2UxNi1kYWU3LWEzZmItZWU1NmI5NjcwMDAw 

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