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In this photo illustration, the Avangrid Company logo seen displayed on a smartphone. (Photo Illustration: Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Energy Giants Spending Millions to Block This State's Effort to Create Consumer-Owned Utility

Maine's investor-owned utility companies are spending millions to stop a proposed consumer takeover.

Jon Lamson

As the 2022 election season heats up, Maine's highest spending political committee doesn't belong to the fundraising division of any political party. Instead, the dubious honor belongs to a ballot question committee called Maine Affordable Energy.

The proposal would create a new nonprofit consumer-owned utility company, covering the vast majority of the state's residential power load.

According to publicly available campaign finance data, Maine Affordable Energy has been entirely funded by just one corporate donor: Avangrid, the parent company of Central Maine Power (CMP).

Avangrid has already spent millions on a campaign opposing a potential 2023 ballot measure, which would propose a buyout of the state's two investor-owned utility companies, CMP and Versant (the state already has nine small-scale cooperatives and municipal-owned utilities). In their place, the proposal would create a new nonprofit consumer-owned utility company, covering the vast majority of the state's residential power load.

Along with a group called Maine Energy Progress, a similar organization entirely funded by ENMAX (Versant's parent company), the utility-sponsored opposition has outspent the ballot's proponents nearly 30 times over.

"We're seeing CMP spending about a million dollars a month in opposition money against us, and we haven't even qualified for the ballot yet," said Andrew Blunt, the Executive Director of Our Power, the organization collecting signatures for this ballot measure. "We're not handing in our signatures to be on the 2023 ballot until later this October. So to see that kind of spending in preparation to oppose a ballot question, that is pretty unprecedented."

Avangrid, which itself is owned by Iberdrola, a large Spanish utility company, has poured $8,378,000 into Maine Affordable Energy since the beginning of 2021 – money which has been largely used for advertising against the public utility proposal. ENMAX has similarly contributed $910,000 as the sole funder of Maine Energy Progress.

In addition, Avangrid has spent over a million dollars pushing a separate ballot question to handicap a potential consumer-owned utility company by limiting their ability to take on debt without explicit voter approval. Willy Ritch, the Principal Officer of Maine Affordable Energy, is also listed as the principal officer of this campaign, titled No Blank Checks. 

Ritch sent me a statement in response to written questions for this story, and he told me that he expects this referendum to make the 2023 ballot.

"We report every penny we receive in contributions and every penny we spend to the Maine Ethics Commission and those reports are public the moment we file them," Ritch wrote. "We follow all the rules and requirements for reporting and disclosure—not just on paid ads but also on every single thing we spend money on."

In comparison, Our Power's ballot question committee has raised $351,971, mostly from individual contributors. The organization is partnering with a coalition of environmental organizations, community advocacy groups, businesses, municipal governments, and ratepayer organizations. 

The websites and advertisements of the investor-owned utilities' campaigns don't disclose the connection between these organizations and their sole funders. Instead, they claim that the takeover would delay the transition to clean energy and increase electricity costs. In his statement, Ritch warned of potential effects of a consumer takeover on the clean energy transition.

"If the referendum passes, it would kick off a protracted bureaucratic and legal process that would take a decade or more to resolve—during which time it's unlikely that the investments we need to make in our electrical system will be made at the rate necessary to meet our carbon reduction goals," Ritch wrote.

But many of the state's major environmental groups have been strong supporters of this proposal, including 350 Maine, Maine Climate Action Now, Maine Youth for Climate Justice, Sierra Club Maine, and hubs of the Sunrise Movement. Publicly owned utility companies are central to many progressive visions of a Green New Deal, as articulated in the 2019 book A Planet to Win.

"The idea of moving our climate goals forward, that would be written into the charge of this new power authority," said Matt Cannon, the State Conservation and Energy Director for Sierra Club Maine. "A private corporation monopoly does not have that as their charge – maximizing profit is still their charge."

Other public power advocates pointed to CMP and Versant as major roadblocks to climate action, and said that their campaigns are attempting to use the climate crisis as a wedge issue.

"We have a lot of evidence in Maine of specifically Central Maine Power lobbying actively and publicly against clean energy solutions," said state Sen. Nicole Grohoski. CMP successfully lobbied against a 2017 bill promoting rooftop solar, and the Avangrid Maine PAC has been a major donor to Maine Republican committees. 

Because any questions regarding a takeover of Maine's utilities wouldn't reach voters until November 2023, the state's corporate utilities will have plenty of time to bombard voters with their messaging. While CMP and Versant contribute a relatively small fraction of their parent companies' overall profits, the companies may be worried that a successful consumer takeover could serve as an example for other regions across the country.

"One of our goals is to serve as an inspiration for other communities that are being saddled with poor service and high costs," said Grohoski. "So it's not just about these two utilities in Maine, it's about what's happening in America."

According to Joshua Basseches, an assistant professor of public policy and environmental studies at Tulane University, a statewide campaign like Our Power is largely unprecedented in US history. Basseches' research investigates the political influence of utility companies throughout the country.

According to Basseches, "Investor-owned utilities have, in the past, fought off efforts at municipalization because it undermines their traditional business model, but never, to my knowledge, has there been such a concerted effort to establish a statewide consumer-owned utility to literally replace them as is happening right now in the state of Maine. We can expect the incumbent utility companies and their parent companies to do everything possible to derail the ballot measure and, if that fails and the outcome is not to their liking, to fight its implementation in the courts."

For some indication on how the opposition might progress, Avangrid and its subsidiaries have spent a whopping $42 million on Clean Energy Matters, a political action committee advocating for the company's proposed transmission corridor connecting Canadian hydropower to utilities in Massachusetts, which was voted down by voters in a 2021 referendum. While voters overwhelmingly opposed the corridor, the legal battle over the project continues. 

"They'll definitely spend more on opposing us than they did on the power line," said Blunt. He noted that while the company stood to make large profits from the transmission corridor, "what we're talking about with this policy is actually an existential threat to these investor-owned utilities."

But despite this daunting imbalance in campaign funds, Blunt is hopeful that the coalition can overcome utility spending through grassroots organizing.

"Right now, what we're seeing is astroturfing. This is big corporate spending, it's detached, no one really knows who's behind it," said Blunt. "There is no replacement for connecting with voters on a personal level, and that is going to be huge in terms of winning this campaign."

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Jon Lamson

Jon Lamson is an environmental reporter and concerned resident.

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