UPDATE: The referendum was rejected roughly 2-1. Only the Portland area supported it, but just barely: the vote there rounds to 50-50.
Maine, which leaped into the electoral unknown by adopting the first statewide embrace of ranked-choice voting, may soon leap into the power grid unknown as voters decide whether to do the first statewide takeover of a public utility.
If nothing else, you can’t accuse them of being timid in a fast-changing world.
On Nov. 7, Maine voters will consider a referendum created by a petition that, if passed, would create a non-profit based in Maine to buy out the state’s two public utilities Central Maine Power, owned by Spain’s Iberdrola, and Versant, owned by Enmax of Canada and operate the state’s electric system. The new entity, Pine Tree Power, would be run by a 13-person board, with seven elected to represent the State Senate districts and six as industry experts.
While it’s not quite the same as when countries nationalize their power industry, it’s a far cry from the “private industry always does it better” approach that has been the default for decades. The closest New Hampshire parallel would be if Eversource was forcibly bought out by New Hampshire Electric Co-Op.
The main driver for the push is the idea that electricity supply and prices shouldn’t be controlled by out-of-state (out-of-country, in this case) corporations that prioritize giving money to the people who buy their shares or lend them funds. “The board’s only obligation will be to Maine ratepayers, not to distant owners like foreign governments or global banks,” is the way the FAQ puts it at ourpowermaine.org .
Supporters also argue that local control will allow it to encourage a cleaner energy supply, which is important in the climate emergency.
The counterargument is that the takeover would be expensive. Opponents say it would cost $13.5 billion to buy out all the assets in Maine. Supporters say the figure is closer to $5 billion. Opponents also argue there’s no evidence that non-profit operations could be done more cheaply, can produce cleaner energy, or even run the system well.
“Mainers would be on the hook for billions in debt, and it could lead to higher taxes or cuts in critical services we rely on,” they argue on their website, which has the pointed URL of MaineAffordableEnergy.org .
Whilecustomer-owned power companies are not uncommon, they’re usually at the municipal or county level. Maine, for example, has customer-owned utilities serving 97 towns. If this passes it would be the first time the switch from private to customer-owned has been done statewide by a voter referendum.
Nebraska has the only statewide consumer-owned power system, created by legislators in 1933 when the Great Depression was upending the finances of all industries. Both sides point to Nebraska in their arguments about cost, clean energy and reliability. (The Midwestern shortage of trees comes up a lot.)
There’s a further complication in that the opponents are pushing a separate referendum that would require consumer-owned utilities to receive voter approval for borrowing more than $1 billion. If it and the Pine Tree Power referendum both pass, the process of switching would be much more complicated.
As far as I can tell, the Pine Tree Power referendum was spurred by a mix of anger at rising electric rates, anger at CMP for huge billing snafus that began with a new backend system in 2017 and lasted for years, debates about the amount of power outages, anger at the long fight over bringing hydropower down from Quebec, and New England’s love of local control.
Which raises the question: Why hasn’t this been attempted in New Hampshire? We’re furious about electric rates, we complain about power outages, you can still find people muttering about Northern Pass, and “local control” is practically our middle name.
The answer is that New Hampshire doesn’t allow voter referendums, a.k.a. “indirect initiated state statutes.” Presumably, we could try to do something like this with our utilities but it would have to be OK’d by the Legislature, governor and perhaps the Executive Council. That is not a recipe for upending the system or for any kind of speedy, startling change.
Referendums can be very speedy and very startling. Maine’s first-in-the-nation adoption of ranked-choice voting was also due to a referendum.
But I admit, I am not a fan of them. Modern government is too complicated to be distilled down to a sentence or two on a ballot and as voters who have busy lives, we’re too easily manipulated by big-bucks campaigns from behind-the-scenes players.
On the other hand, American governance is nothing to be proud of these days and the climate emergency is happening so swiftly and with unexpected force that perhaps direct action is needed.
I have no idea whether Pine Tree Power is a good idea. My uninformed guess is that the sentiment “better the devil we know than the devil we don’t” will defeat it. But I do know that America’s utilities are not moving fast enough and with enough imagination to help us cope with the climate that we are creating; if nothing else, perhaps this effort will shake them up.