AUGUSTA, Maine — A group of former lawmakers and environmental advocates are looking to create a consumer-owned utility through a referendum as soon as 2021 after a similar legislative effort was pared back this year.
The application filed on Sept. 18 by six Mainers, including former independent Sen. Richard Woodbury of Yarmouth and attorney and former lawmaker John Brautigam, is the second referendum effort launched since the state’s highest court struck down an effort to block Central Maine Power’s controversial power line project in August that would target the for-profit utility.
But while a new initiative from CMP opponents looks to block the powerline project by compelling the Legislature to change the law, the latest effort would be in line with a proposal from Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, to buy out CMP and Versant Power — formerly Emera Maine — and create a non-profit utility owned by consumers. It looks to forge ahead while Berry’s bill undergoes additional study after being scaled back this year.
Berry said he was not involved in the referendum push but said on Monday that he was supportive, saying he didn’t “personally care how it gets done” and felt the two processes could be reconciled in the Legislature, should the effort come to pass.
The effort, first reported by Maine Public, is nearly identical to Berry’s original plan. It would ask voters if they would like to create the “Maine Power Delivery Authority,” which would be governed by a voter-elected board charged with ensuing cheaper and reliable electricity.
Brautigam characterized the referendum effort as a “public conversation” about the best way to make future investments in the state’s energy grid. He said that decision should be made by Mainers who own the utility, not companies who have headquarters in other countries. CMP’s parent company is a subsidiary of Spain-based Iberdrola, while Versant is owned by Canada’s Enmax Corp.
The idea of a consumer-owned utility has been fiercely opposed by Maine’s two dominant utilities. It stemmed from dissatisfaction customers have cited over CMP’s rates, billing, reliability, customer service and renewable energy policies, elements of which have contributed to CMP’s unpopularity. The utility did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But Versant Power, which serves much of Maine’s northern population half, pushed back against the concept, saying it seeks a “government takeover” of the power delivery system that would be detrimental to Mainers’ health and safety, particularly as winter approaches.
CMP executive chairman David Flanagan likewise criticized the effort as inefficient and advised employees in a Friday email to “not take this move lightly, as it poses a threat to Maine’s economic and environmental future.”
A study commissioned by the Maine Public Utilities Commission found that residents could initially face higher rates under a consumer-owned plan, but those costs would go down after a fashion and ultimately save customers $232 million over 30 years. A second study by economist Richard Silkman — who criticized the other study alongside other consumer-owned utility backers as being flawed — estimated savings at closer to $9 billion over 30 years.