Power in people's hands

By Dylan Cookson | May 23, 2019
Artwork by: Lisa Lyons

A few weeks ago, State Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, hosted a talk in Rockport on his proposal to replace both CMP and Emera Maine with a consumer-owned utility. During his talk, he reviewed the failings of for-profit utilities.

There is a simple reason for these failings. Investor-owned utilities always prioritize the good of their shareholders over the good of their customers. In 2016, Maine Public Radio reported that CMP spokesman John Carroll referred to the growth of rooftop solar as “putting investor profits at risk.”

This is the process behind every decision of CMP and Emera. Our interests will always be of secondary concern to for-profit ventures. Maine people have started buying rooftop solar and want fair compensation for the power they produce and put onto the grid. CMP asks, “How does this affect our shareholders?”

Maine people do not want a major power corridor running to Massachusets through our backyards. Maine people have also resisted the expansion of natural gas pipelines in our state. Maine people know what is best for them and do not want more investor-owned infrastructure.

But, CMP wants what is best for its shareholders which is the growth of more investor-owned infrastructure, including natural gas pipelines. After all, its majority shareholder is Avangrid, which is also the parent company of Maine Natural Gas.

Here in the United States, we are often asked to believe that what is good for the consumer is good for the company. We are expected to believe that we can “vote with our dollars” for one service or another, or that good service and products will reward the shareholders, and thus give the company an incentive to improve its quality of service.

Unfortunately, this claim doesn’t hold water. According to data from the Energy Information Administration, nationwide, customer-owned utilities are more reliable and less expensive than their pro-profit counterparts.

According to that same data, Maine is among the worst states for both power delivery rates and system reliability, whereas states served largely by customer-owned utilities, such as Nebraska, are ranked among the highest. In Maine, we have two small consumer-owned utilities, Kennebunk Light and Power and Eastern Maine Electric Coop. Both are faster than CMP and Emera at restoring power after outages.

As for the claim that we can “vote with our dollars,” CMP and Emera are regional monopolies, as are most utilities. For all practical purposes, they have to be. Organizing the easements and corridors for transmission lines for one utility is nightmarish enough. If CMP, Emera and our small consumer-owned utilities were to compete statewide, our woods and properties would have to be crisscrossed with transmission lines in all directions. It is practically impossible to have two or more utilities competing in any meaningful way across an entire state.

So, what exactly is Berry’s solution? He is proposing to create a new customer-owned utility for the state of Maine. The Maine Power Delivery Authority would be created by purchasing the infrastructure of CMP and Emera. Berry estimates that such a transition would save Maine ratepayers 15 percent and improve service and reliability. Under such a system, serving the needs of Maine people in a way that is financially viable will be the only major priority. Our concerns and needs will no longer take a back seat to the expectation of profit for idle shareholders.

As a Democratic Socialist living in the state of Maine, I see this proposal as a promising opportunity to make our economy a little more accountable, a little more democratic, and much fairer to myself and Maine’s other inhabitants. And I could see neighbors to my political right coming to the same conclusion. After all, the average Maine Republican sees no major problem with taxes paying for Maine’s roads, schools and municipal resources. And we wouldn’t even be paying taxes to cover our power! Purchasing the infrastructure would be paid for by revenue bonds using the power rates. Future revenues for Maine Power Delivery Authority would also come from rates and rates alone. As now, infrastructure would be paid for by our power bills, and no shareholders would be demanding a share of it.

There are questions still to be addressed, including: How do we ensure that a customer-owned utility managed by the state would be more accountable and more democratic? What would a democratic utility look like? And how does the “consent of the governed” apply to Maine’s energy economy?

Stay tuned for my next column.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Mary A McKeever | May 25, 2019 14:17

Cannot wait for the next episode! It sounds like a "Soap" episode. This comment is right on. The residents are being taken and should try to control the situation. Looking forward to more iinformation. on this subject.



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