Central Maine Power utility lines are seen on Oct. 6, 2021, in Pownal, Maine. An effort to buy out the state's largest utilities and replace them with an elected board qualified for the 2023 ballot on Wednesday. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — A long-debated effort to buy out the infrastructure of Maine’s large electric utilities and replace them with an elected board qualified for the 2023 ballot on Wednesday.

It sets up another high-stakes showdown over energy policy after voters in 2021 rejected the $1 billion hydropower corridor led by the unpopular Central Maine Power Co., whose parent has already set aside more than $10 million to fight the consumer-owned utility proposal and push its own referendum to submit the required billions in borrowing to another vote.

Proponents of the consumer-owned utility, led by the political group Our Power, submitted nearly 70,000 valid signatures from Maine voters to get the question on the ballot, a spokesperson for Secretary of State Shenna Bellows said. That was over 6,000 more than was required.

The proposal would allow a new quasi-public agency to borrow against future revenues to buy out the infrastructure of CMP and Versant Power, the state’s other large electric utility. The companies have released an estimate saying that would cost upward of $13 billion, but the ultimate amount would likely be subject to a years-long legal fight.

An elected board representing different parts of Maine would run the new utility. A study done for the state in 2020 said electric rates could initially go up under a similar scheme but that they should decrease once the utility is running. Proponents of the idea have criticized the study, with one economist aligned with them predicting savings of up to $9 billion over 30 years.

Gov. Janet Mills vetoed a similar bill in 2021 that sent advocates toward the ballot box. The Democrat also supported the CMP corridor, another question that was spurred along by anger at the utility ranked last in customer satisfaction surveys. It has tried to rebuild its reputation since widespread billing and customer service concerns emerged in 2017.

Nebraska is currently the only state served entirely by consumer-owned electric utilities. Maine has some, including notable ones in the Kennebunk and Madison areas. Proponents have cited lower rates in many areas covered by these entities, while the CMP-aligned group Maine Affordable Energy has focused early ads on the upfront costs of borrowing.

The latter group is already running an active campaign against the Our Power proposal and has been gathering signatures for a dueling 2023 question that would subject public borrowing above $1 billion to voter approval, effectively forcing another vote on a consumer-owned utility. It spent $9.5 million as of late October, dwarfing Our Power at $526,000.

The signature announcement means the Legislature will review the question in early 2023. The only way the Our Power question will not go to the ballot is if lawmakers pass it as written, which is unlikely. They could also put a competing version of the question on the ballot with it.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...