Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, speaks at the Belfast Rotary Club in November 2019 about his consumer-owned utility proposal. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

A controversial bill to create a public electric utility was set to face its first vote on Friday, but its backer watered it down at the last minute and convinced the Legislature’s energy committee to study the plan again.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, the co-chair of the energy panel, would create an independent consumer-owned utility to replace Central Maine Power and Versant Power. Berry has traveled the state to push the plan, which faces stiff opposition from the utility companies.

Shortly before the energy committee was set to discuss and vote on whether to send LD 1646 to the full Legislature on Friday, Berry amended it, saying he realized not everyone was on board. The amendment recommended creating a task force that would conduct due diligence on financial and other aspects of setting up an independent utility, among other things.

“I think it’s important to make sure that we are all satisfied that we have done our homework here and that we fully understand what the opportunity really represents,” Berry told the committee.

Criticisms of rates, bills, reliability, customer service and renewable energy policies are behind the proposal to create the Maine Power Delivery Authority, a consumer-owned transmission and distribution company.

Berry and others also contend that the profits of CMP and Versant don’t stay in Maine. Both companies are owned by foreign parents. CMP is owned by Avangrid of Orange, Connecticut. Avangrid in turn is majority owned by Iberdrola, a Spanish company. Versant is owned by ENMAX Corp. of Calgary.

Rep. Chris Kessler, D-Cape Elizabeth supported the amendment, saying the plan needs more analysis and the Legislature must “have the confidence of the public behind it,” while Rep. Jeff Hanley, R-Pittston, said he was upset with the amendment proposal, because it creates a new bill with no hearing.

“We shouldn’t even be discussing this. It changed everything from the title page on,” he said.

Committee members have until Monday to vote, but eight of the nine members present at Friday’s meeting approved forwarding the bill and the amendment, with Senate Minority Leader Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, the lone dissenter. Four committee members, including Hanley, were not present for the vote.

Nebraska is the only U.S. state that fully relies on consumer-owned utility companies rather than for-profit corporations for electricity. It has 162 public utilities. But the move to consumer-owned utilities has taken hold in cities and areas of states including Boulder, Colorado; San Francisco and Long Island, New York. Maine towns, including Madison, have consumer-owned utilities running now.

Both CMP and Versant oppose Berry’s bill, citing the difficulty and complexity of transitioning to a consumer-owned utility and the legal fees that are likely to result from protracted negotiations over the transfer of infrastructure assets to the new utility. They also questioned the timing of the bill, with the coronavirus still active during a recession.

“It would introduce huge uncertainties that have big price tags into a major part of our infrastructure,” CMP Executive Chairman David Flanagan said in an interview with the Bangor Daily News.

Mike Herrin, Versant’s president and CEO, said the transition from the current utilities in Maine to a consumer-owned utility requires a lot of work. Such a move would likely take years.

“Is that something that we want to be focusing on in the state of Maine now?” he asked.

The 13 members of the Consumer Ownership Evaluation Task Force would be appointed by either the governor, Senate president or House speaker under Berry’s new bill. The group would review publicly available projections for future capital expenditures for the state’s electricity transmission and distribution system, evaluate finance and tax issues, analyze the best way to get an independent contractor to manage and operate the new utility, and study regional and federal requirements and systems that affect the transition from a public to an independent utility.

The task force would be required to submit an interim report to the energy committee by March 15, 2021 and a final report by Nov. 30, 2021. The committee would then submit legislation to the Legislature.

The bill, which was carried over from the 2019 legislative session, was the final item on the committee’s agenda for 2020. The full Legislature is considering whether to reconvene for a remote August session at the Augusta Civic Center, but Republicans blocked a bid from Democratic leaders to come back then while prodding them to limit the scope of work.