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Panel discussion touts proposal for consumer-owned utility

By Fran Gonzalez | Mar 24, 2020
Photo by: Fran Gonzalez From left, State Reps. Jan Dodge, D-Belfast, and Scott Cuddy, D-Winterport (speaking), Jen Albee of ReVision Energy, Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, and local activist Jonathan Fulford of Monroe March 13. The panel discussed recent legislation introduced by Berry to buy CMP and Emera Maine and combine them into a consumer-owned utility.

Searsport —

“The grid is the foundation of our clean energy future,” State Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said, and added, “...basically the solution is, we electrify everything.”

Coupled with offshore wind, he said, Maine is poised to be a powerhouse for the entire New England region. The “obstacle” is Central Maine Power Co., Berry said, which is resisting efficiency in favor of maximizing stakeholder profits.

Berry, a local business leader and former teacher who represents House District 55, introduced a bill in the Legislature that would replace the current electric company monopoly with a consumer-owned utility. Around the country, he said, COUs provide electric power to three in 10 households. Customers pay on average 13% less than households purchasing from Central Maine Power and Emera Maine, and their reliability record is better.

Democratic Reps. Scott Cuddy of Winterport and Jan Dodge of Belfast, who represent districts 98 and 97 respectively, hosted the panel discussion Friday, March 13, at Union Hall in Searsport with panelists Jen Albee of ReVision Energy and Jonathan Fulford, community activist, along with Berry.

The Maine Power Delivery Authority, as it would be known, would buy out CMP and Emera Maine, and operate the utility much like Maine’s existing consumer-owned cooperatives, such as Kennebunk Light and Power, Madison Electric Works and Eastern Maine Electric Cooperative, which service 97 towns in Maine in whole or in part.

At a fair price, MPDA would buy the facilities now owned by CMP and Emera Maine using low-interest revenue bonds to replace high-interest equity, and those bonds would be backed by MPDA’s revenue from delivering electricity. “It’s like refinancing your mortgage at a lower interest rate,” Berry said.

Unlike CMP or Emera Maine, MPDA would be responsible to Maine customers only. Currently, Berry said, CMP’s executive director has only one responsibility, and that is to maximize profits for the company's international shareholders.

Berry explained that CMP was once a Maine for-profit company, but was purchased by Energy East, then by Iberdrola of Spain, which then set up a complex intermediate structure, merging with Avangrid, but still retaining 81% ownership.

“Every decision is not made in Maine, but made in Bilbao, Spain,” Berry said. “The principal investors in Iberdrola are from Qatar, an oil-based wealth nation; from Norway, also with oil money wealth (Norges Bank); from Spanish investment banks with ties to the Franco regime; and Blackrock, an investment company which had some role in helping the world's wealthiest investors hide their money from taxation.”

MPDA would be overseen by an independent, not-for-profit board, with legal responsibility to the customer, not the investor. Company meetings would be open and transparent and records would be available under Maine’s Freedom of Access laws.

As a consumer-owned utility, MPDA would also be eligible for federal disaster relief after major storms, as opposed to CMP and Emera, which charge their customers to repair the damage.

Fulford said he first heard of this bill around a year ago, and thought it was the first significant piece of climate change legislation since Gov. Mills established her climate council.

“Not only would it have the advantage of eliminating the negative influence of CMP and Emera on trying to get meaningful legislation through,” Fulford said, “but more importantly, it (gives) us the ability to afford to do the decarbonizing work we have to do. I do not see a path forward to doing the scale of work we need to do, without this being one of the fundamental building blocks.”

Albee said people at CMP and Emera are “overworked and have way too much on their plate,” and through it all are “kind and generous with their time and are a pleasure to work with.”

A bill like this would benefit CMP and Emera, she said, “as much as it would benefit us.”

She added, “The work we are doing has to happen faster.” The grid, Albee pointed out, is ”woefully inadequate” for the transition that needs to happen. “We have minimal infrastructure,” Albee said. “We have to increase the pace of renewable adoption.”

What has happened, she said, is the money that should have been reinvested to expand the grid has instead been going overseas. “Let’s change that,” she said.

One resident asked, “To me this is a no-brainer. What is getting in the way? What are the barriers to getting this done?”

Fulford said there are huge profits at stake, and people with vested interests will work very hard to prevent the loss of this “money cow.” He added that legislators are risk-averse, even when studies show the long-term benefits, because “it’s a change.”

“It requires courage to say, this broken system we have now we’re used to, but we are willing to make structural changes for the benefit of the future,” Fulford said.

Because of the coronavirus threat, the Legislature adjourned March 17 and the bill was carried over to “any special session of the 129th Legislature.”

“The bill may go into a state of suspended animation,” Berry said, “with the worst-case scenario that the legislation would die and we would start over again in January with the beginning of the 130th Legislature. ... This is a multi-year effort, regardless.”

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