‘Fatally flawed’: Consumer-owned power proponents say Mills’ utility plan isn’t enough / by Evan Popp

Photo: Gov. Janet Mills in 2019 | Beacon

After Gov. Janet Mills released a bill this week that her administration says will provide enhanced tools to hold Central Maine Power and Versant accountable for poor service, advocates pushing for a consumer-owned utility in Maine argued that the governor’s proposal is “fatally flawed” and doesn’t sufficiently address long-standing service issues that have plagued the two companies. 

The bill, which was unveiled by the Mills administration Wednesday, comes after the governor in July vetoed a bipartisan bill to ask voters in November 2021 whether they wanted to replace CMP and Versant with a consumer-owned utility called the Pine Tree Power Company. Andrew Blunt, legislative director for Our Power — a coalition pushing for a consumer-owned utility — said the latest move by Mills is a recognition of the enduring strength of the movement for people-controlled power. 

“Our Power is very proud to see that our grassroots effort is moving the needle on conversations around utility accountability and Mills’ new bill is certainly proof of that,” he said. 

Advocates for a consumer-owned utility argue that CMP and Versant — which have consistently delivered poorly-rated service — have failed Mainers and that establishing a consumer-owned model that puts the state’s energy future in the hands of the people would lead to more cost-effective and reliable power. 

Following Mills’ veto in July, Our Power launched a signature-gathering effort to put the question of creating a consumer-owned utility on the ballot. That measure will likely go to voters in November 2023.  

Governor’s bill

Mills’ legislation appears to be an effort to make some reforms to the utility system without necessarily getting rid of CMP and Versant, although CMP pushed back against the measure in a statement to the Bangor Daily News, saying the Public Utilities Commission already has the tools needed to regulate utilities. 

The bill would mandate that the PUC set “minimum standards for safe, reasonable, and adequate service to Maine customers” and require that the commission publish reports on a quarterly basis on whether utilities are meeting those standards. If CMP and Versant consistently fail to meet the standards, the bill would impose penalties on the companies of up to $1 million or 10% of the utility’s annual revenue. 

The Mills administration said the bill would also create a process for forcing a failing utility to sell, and the measure requires the PUC to consider a proposal to create a consumer-owned utility under that scenario. In addition, the legislation would establish “periodic audits” to determine whether the utility’s actual cost of service is consistent with estimates used to set rates for consumers. If there is a discrepancy of greater than 10%, the PUC “may conduct a financial audit.” 

Other stipulations in the measure include greater protections for utility employees who point out wrongdoing and a requirement that CMP and Versant submit a 10-year plan to the PUC every two years on steps being taken to prepare and respond to the impacts of climate change. 

“Whether it’s poor customer service, billing problems, or extended power outages, the issues experienced by Maine people over the past several years have made clear that Maine doesn’t have the tools it needs to hold our utilities accountable. It’s time for that to change,” Mills said in a release on the bill, which is being co-sponsored by a group of legislators, including House Speaker Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford) and some Republicans. 

Grassroots coalition responds

In a news release Thursday, Our Power said Mills’ proposal fails to truly hold CMP and Versant accountable for their failings or address the root of the issue with investor-owned utilities. 

“The PUC’s unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats can already create performance standards and decide if a utility’s failure to meet them warrants any penalty at all,” said Sen. Rick Bennett (R-Oxford), who co-sponsored the bill to create the Pine Tree Power Company. 

“Our Power’s referendum, in contrast, opens the door to energy democracy,” Bennett continued. “While keeping full PUC oversight, it empowers all Maine people with an elected and expert board accountable directly to us, conducting our business openly, here in Maine, and in the light of day. Without such provisions, in my view the governor’s bill is fatally flawed.”

In addition, Bill Dunn, a petitioner for the consumer-owned utility campaign and longtime international utility expert, cast doubt on the PUC’s ability to regulate Maine’s investor-owned utilities, saying the commission “has let CMP and Versant fail us, year after year, on every measure.” 

Our Power via Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ourpowermaine

In a statement on Mills’ legislation, though, PUC spokesperson Susan Faloon said, “This proposed legislation reinforces the role of the Commission and gives us even more tools to ensure quality service for the people of Maine. Ensuring safe, reliable services at rates that are just and reasonable for both customers and utilities is a role we take very seriously at the Commission. The Commission does set a variety of reliability, customer service and other standards to hold utilities accountable. If a utility fails to meet these standards, they may face penalties or other sanctions. The Commission welcomes the regulatory enhancements proposed by this legislation.”

However, State Rep. Nicole Grohoski (D-Ellsworth) said Mills’ legislation isn’t sufficient, arguing that it doesn’t address skyrocketing energy costs in Maine. Grohoski said CMP and Versant’s residential delivery rates were, as of a year ago, more expensive than the consumer-owned utilities that exist in some Maine towns and pointed out that both companies have recently been granted a delivery rate increase. 

“Maine people work hard for their money, while CMP and Versant’s far-off investors sit back in their cushy chairs siphoning off as much as they can get away with,” Grohoski said, referring to the fact that CMP is owned by Avangrid, which is a subsidiary of the Spanish multinational company Iberdrola, while Versant is owned by the city of Calgary in Canada. “Our Power’s referendum question frees us from this abusive relationship and offers net savings of $9 billion — including the initial purchase cost — with lower bills starting for us all on day one.”

The coalition also expressed opposition to Mills’ proposal from a climate perspective. One of the primary drivers behind the push to create a consumer-owned utility to replace CMP and Versant is the argument that it would facilitate a faster transition to renewable energy. 

“To reach the governor’s own stated climate goals, consumer ownership is the only proven business model for a just and equitable transition,” said Emily Rochford, a Maine Youth for Climate Justice leader and Our Power board member. “It’s no coincidence that all six of the first U.S. communities to arrive at 100% renewables are served by consumer-owned utilities. Both leading large utilities in the race to 100% are also consumer-owned.”

The group’s release also stated that more details are needed on the pathway laid out in the governor’s bill for forcing CMP and Versant to sell under certain circumstances and potentially creating a consumer-owned utility. Wayne Jortner, lead petitioner on the ballot initiative and longtime senior counsel for the Public Advocate, said while the group welcomes the governor’s interest in the possibility of a consumer-owned utility in Maine, Mills’ legislation simply doesn’t achieve crucial goals, including a “thriving democracy, economic competition, a liveable planet, and safe and affordable energy infrastructure.” 

Ultimately, Our Power believes the people of Maine should decide whether the state forms a consumer-owned utility, board president John Brautigam said. 

“It is time to re-imagine our grid as a public good, rather than a profit opportunity for investors who don’t share our love of this state and don’t care about our future,” he said.

Author: Evan Popp studied journalism at Ithaca College and interned at the Progressive magazine, ThinkProgress and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He then worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper before joining Beacon. Evan can be reached at evan(at)mainebeacon.com.

Source: The Beacon, February 3, 2022, https://mainebeacon.com/fatally-flawed-consumer-owned-power-proponents-say-mills-utility-plan-isnt-enough/