A group pushing to replace the state’s two largest electric utility companies with a consumer-owned entity turned in more than 80,000 signatures Monday with the goal of prompting a state referendum in November 2023.
The Our Power coalition wants to create a nonprofit, consumer-owned utility that would take over for Central Maine Power and Versant Power. “One that finally responds to Maine’s needs for affordable, reliable and clean electricity,” Our Power Executive Director Andrew Blunt told a press conference at the State House on Monday.
Our Power includes the Sierra Club, Environment Maine and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.
Gov. Janet Mills vetoed a bill to create the Pine Tree Power Authority in July 2021, which forced the group to gather more than 60,000 signatures to call for a statewide vote.
In her veto message, Mills described CMP and Versant’s performance in recent years as “abysmal” but said the legislation was “a patchwork of political promises rather than a methodical reformation of Maine’s complicated electrical transmission and distribution system.”
Also Monday, a group called No Blank Checks, which is funded by CMP parent Avangrid, announced that it has more than 92,000 signatures to call for a November 2023 vote on a question that would require voter approval for government debt over $1 billion. It's a direct response to the Our Power effort.
"Our proposal is pretty simple," Willy Ritch, executive director of No Blank Checks said. "If the public is going to be on the hook for billions of dollars in debt, they should know what that number is before signing off on it."
Both CMP and Versant have created political action committees to oppose the consumer-owned utility ballot measure.
Versant-backed Maine Energy Progress describes it as “risky.” The group includes the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.
“This risky $13.5 billion proposal to take over our electric grid will create a tremendously volatile business environment in Maine for years to come,” Dana Connors, president of the state chamber, said in a statement.
Versant parent company Enmax has contributed $910,000 to the committee to date.
CMP is funding Maine Affordable Energy, a group to oppose “government-controlled power,” according to the Maine Ethics Commission. CMP parent company Avangrid has contributed more than $10.4 million so far.
“Seizing the utilities and creating an electric authority run by elected politicians is not a good deal for workers,” Ben Waxman, co-owner of American Roots in Westbrook said in a release. “It puts the hard-earned contracts that CMP and Versant workers have negotiated at risk and would lead to these workers losing some of their fundamental rights as union members.”
But the backers of Our Power say that foreign owned companies like CMP and Versant are driven by the need to make a profit, perform poorly during outages and leave Mainers paying the sixth highest electricity rates in the country, according to chooseenergy.com.
Retired Waterville teacher Linda Woods said she and a group of volunteers from her church heard heartbreaking stories from Mainers as they gathered signatures on the petition.
“I heard multiple stories of exorbitant charges and prolonged outages,” she said. “Many shared their concerns about ever increasing electricity bills.”
In August, CMP asked state regulators for permission to raise rates estimated to cost ratepayers about $10 per month and in September, Versant requested an increase of about $13 per month.
CMP president and CEO Joseph Purington said the company is “focused on providing safe, reliable service.”
“Running Maine’s electric grid demands experience and know-how,” he said in a statement. “It should remain the responsibility of utility professionals to make critical decisions about how the grid best meets the needs of Mainers.”
If the signatures turned in Monday are verified by the state and the ballot question moves forward, voters in November 2023 will decide whether to create a new entity that would borrow money to take over for CMP and Versant.
Our Power estimates the cost to be $9 billion, while the state chamber pegs the price at $13.5 billion.
Vaughan Woodruff, former CEO and founder of Insource Renewables and a former chairman of a solar industry trade group, said several Maine communities are already served by consumer-owned utilities.
Those include Houlton, Kennebunk and Madison, three of 97 towns in the state with consumer-owned utilities.
If Our Power is successful, everyone else in the state now served by CMP or Versant would be under a similar system, he said.
As it is now, CMP and Versant monopolize the market to the detriment of consumers, he said.
“We have government regulated monopolies and the government has not done its job to regulate the monopolies in a manner that serves us, the ratepayers of Maine,” he said.