"Mainers have a rare chance to take control of an important part of their daily lives," said Sen. Bernie Sanders in his endorsement of Pine Tree Power. "Mainers can have cheaper, more reliable power—and help fight climate change at the same time."
As Election Day nears, climate and economic justice advocates in Maine and across the country are calling on voters in the New England state to approve an historic referendum that would initiate a public takeover of Maine's two for-profit utilities—a move which public power experts say could bring about a sea change in public utility ownership and lower rates for consumers while building resistance to fossil fuel infrastructure.
The "Yes on Question 3" campaign aims to create a new nonprofit company called Pine Tree Power, which would purchase Central Maine Power (CMP) and Versant. The two companies currently provide power to 96% of Maine customers. The new company would be run by a board of directors elected by Maine voters, which advocates say would make the utility far more accountable to consumers than the investor-owned utilities have been.
Proponents have pointed to local utility takeovers which have resulted in lower rates for consumers, such as the case of the Long Island Power Authority. The publicly owned authority reduced electricity rates by 20% for customers, according to the American Public Power Association (APPA).
The grassroots Pine Tree Power campaign notes that consumer-owned utilities (COUs) are not a radical new idea in Maine, as 10 COUs serve 98 towns across the state. When one of the COUs attempted to expand and provide more customers in Kennebunk with lower rates and more reliable service, CMP halted the effort, leading one resident to say they were being "held hostage by the country's worst power company."
"Whether we're new or lifelong Mainers, we know that our state is defined by folks who work hard for one another," reads Pine Tree Power's website. "Medical workers and mill workers, farmers and firefighters, loggers, and lobstermen, we all work together to power Maine. That's why we deserve a power company that works just as hard for us."
"But ever since our utilities were sold to the highest bidder, our communities have been falling victim to the tyranny of faraway corporations," it continues, noting that CMP's parent company is owned by a Spanish firm while the primary shareholder of Versant's parent company is the city of Calgary, Canada.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration says that average electricity prices across New England are some of the highest in the nation, rivaling only Alaska and Hawaii, with costs rising from 24.6 cents per kilowatt hour in June 2022 to 28.3 cents per kilowatt hour this past June. Meanwhile, Maine's electric utilities get low marks for reliability, with the state ranked 49th in the country according to a 2022 analysis by the Citizens Utility Board in Illinois.
Pine Tree Power says the new public utility would save ratepayers $9 billion over three decades—lowering rates by an average of $367 per household annually—while a 2020 study commissioned by the Maine Public Utilities Commission said rates would likely increase in the short term after the purchase of CMP and Versant, but come down over the long term due to tax savings.
As the APPA told the Rhode Island Current last month, 18 new local public power utilities have been formed in the U.S. over the past two decades, and "their rates are typically lower and their electric service is more reliable."
But companies like CMP and Versant, whose profits and rates have soared in recent years while service has declined, are able to pour their vast resources into their own campaigns "to discourage communities from looking at their options," Ursula Schryver of APPA told the Current. The utilities have raised more than $27 million to oppose the Yes on Question 3 initiative.
"They'll typically say it's going to be expensive, take years, and cost a lot of money," said Schryver, the group's vice president for strategic member engagement. "They're going to have PR campaigns [and] push legal challenges to drag it out and make it as expensive and as long and scary as possible."
Pine Tree Power noted on social media in July that the grassroots campaign has garnered small donations from more than 1,000 people, 90% of whom live in Maine.
In addition to spending tens of millions of dollars to defeat Pine Tree Power, the for-profit utilities are backing a separate referendum in November that, if passed, would stall the creation of the publicly owned company by requiring Mainers to vote on borrowing more than $1 billion in most cases.
Maine Affordable Energy, a group funded by CMP, claims the purchase of the two utilities would cost Mainers $13.5 billion, while utility lawyer Peter Murray estimated in the Portland Press Herald last month that the true acquisition price would likely be about half that amount, based on the investor-owned companies' Federal Energy Regulatory Commission filings.
One of the proposal's latest endorsements came from the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM) on Wednesday, with the group writing in a position paper that in addition to saving Mainers money, the "transparency and local accountability" that a public utility would provide would be "crucial to an equitable, affordable clean energy transition."
"Sometimes it's only government that can get the job done," said NRCM. "Take for example Efficiency Maine Trust (EMT), an independent quasi-government agency formalized in 2009 for not dissimilar reasons to the Pine Tree Power proposal, to correct for the disincentive utilities have to invest in energy efficiency. EMT, now with an annual budget of $100 million, implements energy efficiency and alternative energy programs across Maine, invests in businesses and workforce capacity, and has become a widely trusted resource for information to inform personal and business investment decisions. Just imagine what EMT could accomplish if it were working with cooperative utilities."
The group added that low-cost financing available to COUs could help speed "an equitable clean energy transition" that includes "low- and moderate-income households and other underserved Mainers."
"Access to lower-cost financing can free up resources to build robust programs designed to overcome the social and financial barriers to energy efficiency upgrades, weatherization, heat pumps, zero-emission vehicles, solar, and battery storage, to ensure that vulnerable and marginalized people also enjoy the ways that clean energy makes our homes safer and more comfortable, affordable, and valuable," said NRCM.
The Pine Tree Power campaign has also been endorsed by 350.org, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sierra Club Maine, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), and the Maine State Nurses Association (MSNA).
MSNA argued in its endorsement that "access to clean, reliable energy is undeniably a public health concern," with power loss linked to higher mortality rates among elderly people, while MOFGA said "true sustainability will only be possible with a power company that puts the needs of our local communities above the profits of foreign CEOs."
"Power belongs in the hands of the people, not greedy corporations," said Sanders in July. "Mainers have a rare chance to take control of an important part of their daily lives. Instead of a private power system that last year sent $187 million in profits out of the country, Mainers can have cheaper, more reliable power—and help fight climate change at the same time."
While CMP has lobbied against renewable energy legislation, proponents of Pine Tree Power, including 350.org, say the publicly owned utility "is a direct way of targeting the fossil fuel industry."
"Returning power to the people and looking for big fights is where we can best show solutions and also resist the fossil fuel infrastructure," Candice Fortin, a campaigner with the group, toldThe Progressive in August.