While big debates on the future of electricity in, around and through Maine continue, an important energy story in the state has remained largely untold. Eastern Maine Electric Cooperative, which provides electricity to 12,600 customers in a 3,000-square-mile region in parts of Penobscot, Aroostook and Washington counties along the Canadian border, recently announced that it had lowered customer bills by 10 percent. Except they’re not customers — they’re owners.
EMEC traces its beginnings to 1940 when the Denny’s River Electric Cooperative was formed in Meddybemps. Some old-timers in Washington County remember the 1930s when many homes did not have electricity. CEO Scott Hallowell has heard stories of those who let line workers stay in their homes as they built the network, and of residents going door-to-door to persuade their neighbors to sign up for the service.
In 1953, the company moved its headquarters to Calais, where it remains today. In 1958 it acquired St. Croix Electric Co. and changed its name to Eastern Maine Electric Cooperative. In 1976 EMEC acquired the electrical assets of Woodland Water & Electric.
The utility is owned by ratepayers, and the company is run as a nonprofit. The electric cooperative’s service area is divided into 11 districts, and each district elects a representative to the board of directors, which makes the big decisions. Elections for the director seats are competitive, Mr. Hallow-ell said.
Unlike for-profit utilities, running the cooperative is easy, he said. “Our No. 1 goal is service,” while for-profit utilities must also be mindful of quarterly returns. Like other utilities in the post-deregulation era, EMEC provides distribution of electricity, purchasing it from other parties. Recently, the cooperative sought bids on energy and NB Power in New Brunswick won the contract. The price was low enough to allow EMEC to cut residential rates by 10 percent. Its residential rate, as of April 1, will be lower than both that of Bangor Hydro and Maine Public Service.
EMEC is small compared to Maine utilities such as Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. and Central Maine Power Co. But there are larger electric cooperatives in the U.S., some with as many as 100,000 meters. And there are many cooperatives — 800 to 900, Mr. Hallowell said, representing 42 percent of distribution lines in the country, three-quarters of the land area and 10 percent of the kilowatt-hours delivered. Most are in rural areas.
A national association of electric cooperatives provides ECEM and its other members with help developing billing systems and other business practices, also decreasing costs.
The cooperative also is a player in the community, Mr. Hallowell said, part of its stated mission. It acted as the conduit for an interest-free $700,000 USDA loan for a counseling center for abused children in Calais.
Twenty years ago, few could have imagined a world in which utility companies were no longer generating electricity. Yet since deregulation in March 2000, that has been their fate. Maine’s large for-profit utilities are run responsibly and are responsive to the needs of consumers, but in the fast-changing electric world, cooperatively owned organizations may prove to be an option.