There’s energy building behind an effort to replace Central Maine Power and Emera Maine with a consumer-owned, state utility. We are skeptical about this push, viewing it as a potentially unworkable overreaction to legitimate concerns about energy costs and delivery here in Maine. Our concerns haven’t changed.
What has changed is that Gov. Janet Mills signed a bill last week that directs the Maine Public Utilities Commission to study the concept of a publicly-owned utility being championed by Democratic Rep. Seth Berry, and to report back by mid-February. The utilities commission must look at the potential costs and benefits both in the short and long term; examine legal, technical, financial and operational issues involved; and explore potential changes to Berry’s proposal if problems are identified.
This compromise is a good one. Even for utility takeover skeptics like us — and vocal opponents like the two existing utilities themselves — there is unmistakable value in conducting this study and having more information before the train potentially leaves the station.
Representatives for both CMP and Emera Maine appear to be on board with the study, even though the companies obviously oppose the overall idea of moving to a consumer-owned utility.
“Although our company is not for sale, CMP believes the PUC is the proper organization to undertake the feasibility study of the many complex business and infrastructure issues surrounding power delivery in Maine,” CMP spokesperson Catharine Hartnett said.
Emera spokeswoman Judy Long, a former BDN employee, emphasized the potential costs and complications of a consumer-owned utility.
“The cost for the people of Maine to purchase the state’s two investor-owned utilities could be $7 billion to $9 billion, and that doesn’t include the costs of a new government power bureaucracy,” Long said in an email. And she may be right.
But this study, ultimately, can help provide a clearer picture before any major decisions are made. It also provides an important opportunity to learn more about our energy delivery system and where we can and should take it in the future.
Consumer-owned utilities have had success at the local level, with several in Maine, but the idea of a statewide consumer-owned utility is much less tested. Nebraska is the only state in the country that uses this model. According to 2017 data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Nebraska retail electric customers pay around 9 cents per kilowatt hour, compared with 13 cents in Maine.
Those results are worth considering, but Maine’s energy needs and realities are very different than those of Nebraska. And as Long pointed out, a study looking into changes to Hawaii’s utility model found that already-high prices could be driven higher. With all of the unknowns involved, a Maine-specific study makes sense.
Somehow cases like the Long Island Power Authority end up being cited as supporting evidence for both sides of this debate, simultaneously a cautionary and exemplary tale of what consumer-owned utilities can offer ratepayers depending on one’s perspective. For us, the fact that a New York state commission in 2013 found “structural dysfunction and blatant disrespect for ratepayers” at the Long Island Power Authority is enough to wonder if a consumer-owned utility in Maine would run into some of the same problems we’re currently seeing here in the state — particularly with CMP.
There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about a consumer-owned utility run by a board of political appointees. The costs and complications could be greater than proponents recognize. This model may not solve some of the reliability and responsiveness issues it seeks to address. And it might inject a new level of political pressure into the administration of our energy grid that could ultimately prove unhelpful to consumers.
A study of this proposal could confirm our hesitancies, just as it could prove us overly cautious. Either way, more information about the potential impacts of a consumer-owned, statewide utility will be helpful in the debate about Maine’s energy future.