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There’s a lot not to like about Maine’s two largest power companies, especially Central Maine Power Co., which has the lowest utility customer satisfaction rating in the country. Their rates are high compared to many other states. They have not been especially cooperative with proposals to increase solar power generation in Maine. And CMP has started to build an ambitious and controversial new transmission line through western Maine to carry power from Quebec to Massachetts.
A proposal to have Maine voters consider a takeover of these companies to have them run by a public power board, which is currently being considered by the Legislature, may not be the panacea that its backers promise.
The distribution and sale of electricity in Maine is a complex puzzle. It is not an issue that lends itself to an up or down vote at the ballot box. Or, frankly, to honest and truly informative advertising as part of a campaign to persuade voters to either support or reject the proposed Pine Tree Power Company.
So, rather than essentially punt and send this question to Maine voters in November, which coincidentally is when they will also consider a referendum to halt the new transmission line, lawmakers should do the hard work of more fully evaluating this proposal.
Further analysis of several big questions was called for last year in a study that had been requested by the Maine Public Utilities Commission. That review, by London Economics, found that, because of the expected costs of acquiring CMP and Versant, a consumer-owned utility would initially charge higher rates, but that those rates could decline in a decade or so.
The report’s biggest message, however, was that many aspects of such a takeover were unclear and needed more assessment.
As a result, a bill that called for the takeover was amended to create a commission to do such an analysis. The bill was set aside when the Legislature adjourned last spring because of the coronavirus pandemic and the commission was not created.
Rather than rushing to put this question to a public vote, lawmakers should back up and support a much more detailed analysis of this proposal.
Simply put, there are too many unanswered questions.
Such a study, ultimately, can help provide a clearer picture before any major decisions are made. It also provides an important opportunity to learn more about our energy delivery system and where we can and should take it in the future.
Consumer-owned utilities have had success at the local level, with several in Maine, but the idea of a statewide consumer-owned utility is much less tested. Nebraska is the only state in the country that uses this model. According to 2019 data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Nebraska retail electric customers pay around 9 cents per kilowatt hour, compared with 14 cents in Maine.
Those results are worth considering, but Maine’s energy needs and realities are very different from those of Nebraska, which is heavily reliant on inexpensive, but highly polluting, coal.
There have also been problems — sometimes expensive problems — with consumer-owned utilities. In Boulder, Colorado, residents last year voted to resume working with Excel Energy a decade after they had voted to cut ties with the private utility. The experiment cost millions of taxpayer dollars and delayed the city’s efforts to use more renewable power.
There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about a consumer-owned utility run by a board of elected members. The costs and complications could be greater than proponents recognize. This model may not solve some of the reliability and responsiveness issues it seeks to address. It may make it more difficult for the state to meet its climate change targets. And it might inject a new level of political pressure into the administration of our energy grid that could ultimately prove unhelpful to consumers.
Regardless of what a study may find, more information about the potential impacts of a consumer-owned, statewide utility is needed before lawmakers and the public make big decisions about Maine’s energy future. The Legislature, not voters, should compel this needed analysis.