The Maine State House in Augusta is pictured on May 6, 2020. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

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Joe Wishcamper of Freeport has developed five commercial solar farms in Maine with two more under construction. He served on the board of Central Maine Power in the 1990s.

As one of many in our state who are working to wean our economy off fossil fuels, I believe the proposal currently under consideration in Augusta to form a new Pine Tree Power Company is unwise. Turning our energy future over to a board of elected politicians would set us back in our efforts to achieve carbon neutrality.

In 2019, when Gov. Janet Mills boldly declared before the United Nations that Maine would be carbon neutral by 2045 — and then came home and created a Climate Council to draw up the roadmap for getting there — many of us here in the state saw the opportunity to step up and help speed our transition toward a clean energy future.

But the bill the Legislature is considering would throw up some major roadblocks.

In every state where there has been an attempt at seizing private companies to create a government utility, the first result is years of bureaucratic and legal wrangling. In New York, for example, it took 13 years of court cases before the Long Island Power Authority was established (and in the intervening years it has been plagued with problems.) In Boulder, Colorado, the city spent 10 years and nearly $30 million trying to take over the local utility before voters finally pulled the plug on that failed effort. 

Is there any reason we would expect an attempted takeover in Maine to go any more smoothly? Absolutely not. In fact, the bill now being considered includes additional regulatory steps which would stretch the process out even further — into the mid 2030s in all likelihood.

We need to spend the next decade upgrading and modernizing the grid to take advantage of new clean energy technologies, like solar, and not tangled up in a legal battle over who owns it.

Because of substantial incentives established by the Legislature, there has been a rush to build small solar farms here in Maine. In a typical year, a company like CMP might only have had one or two applications to hook up one of these installations, but now they have over 400 — and I’m involved in some of them. Our privately owned utilities have not done everything perfectly in this process, and I know there’s some dissatisfaction with CMP in particular. But as someone directly involved in solar generation, I want my fellow Mainers to know that the utilities are at the table with us. The problems of integrating solar into the grid are complex, but we have willing partners in the state’s private utilities.

It’s not just the years of delays from an attempted takeover of the grid that worry me. The bigger problem is what comes next, if a takeover happens.

The proposed takeover would create a board of elected officials who would make important decisions about the future of our electric grid in Maine. As someone who has served on many different boards, both public and private (including chairing the board of trustees for the University of Maine System) I can tell you that putting elected officials in charge of our grid is the last thing we should be doing at this critical moment in our fight against climate change.

The proposed board would have enormous power to make policy decisions that would likely get caught up in partisan politics and electioneering. They would also constantly be pressured by interest groups to make political decisions and campaign spending and special interest money would impact the board’s decisions and the election of its members.

The important thing is that we don’t lose sight of the fact that our common enemy is climate change, not the utilities. We don’t have years to lose fighting over who operates the state’s utilities. Mainers must realize that privatizing the utilities would be a risky and unproven gamble at a time when stakeholders should work together with the utilities to create a modern grid to deliver reliable power to the state’s businesses and residents.