In aftermath of Question 3, public power proponents contemplate their next move
Following the defeat earlier this month of a ballot question that sought to replace Central Maine Power and Versant with a consumer-owned utility, proponents of that referendum are uncertain about what comes next but maintain that the current power system needs significant reform to work better for customers.
The referendum, Question 3, would have set in motion a process for the Pine Tree Power Company to buy out the state’s for-profit utility companies and provide electricity to most of Maine. The ballot question was initiated in response to concerns about the cost and reliability of CMP and Versant’s service as well as the for-profit business model of the companies — which collectively made $187 million last year.
The measure was ultimately defeated by a wide margin, with nearly 70% of Mainers opposing it and 30% voting in support. Following the election, CMP CEO Joseph Purington told the Press Herald that the results “really just validated what we’ve been focused on the last couple of years.” However, Question 3 proponents pointed out that the Pine Tree Power campaign was outspent 37-1 and faced a deluge of negative ads funded overwhelmingly by CMP and Versant’s parent companies.
“It wasn’t just a referendum between two ideas as they often are, it was a referendum between the people and a large corporation that didn’t have to raise any money. [The opposition] was entirely funded by the utilities, so they basically had an expense account to spend as much money as they wanted,” said Lucy Hochschartner, deputy campaign manager of Pine Tree Power.
In the aftermath of the defeat, conversations about where Pine Tree Power goes from here are underway, Hochschartner said, but no final decisions will be made until the campaign consults all members of its movement, including volunteers and grassroots supporters — a process she expects to take until January.
While the exact path forward is uncertain, Hochschartner said it’s clear that the current utility system isn’t working for Mainers. Despite the results of the Question 3 election, she said CMP and Versant — which have ranked at the bottom of utility customer satisfaction surveys for years running — are still unpopular with many Mainers.
Hochschartner said many people brought up issues with the utilities during Pine Tree Power’s door-to-door focused campaign, sharing stories about experiencing widespread outages, increasing bills, or being sent a disconnection notice.
“We deserve a whole lot better than we’re getting and we need to figure out how to [get] that,” Hochschartner said.
Utilities vow to do better
In the lead up to the Question 3 referendum, CMP and Versant pushed back against many of the complaints brought up by Pine Tree Power, and in the aftermath of the election the companies say they are focused on serving the people of Maine and creating an affordable and reliable grid.
“From our response to the 2022 Christmas storm, to exceeding our customer service metrics for more than three years running, to being voted one of Maine’s best places to work, our company remains completely committed to our customers, our employees and to Maine,” Purington wrote in a recent Press Herald op-ed that a CMP spokesperson directed Maine Morning Star to when asked for comment.
Purington added that the company will be submitting a “climate change protection plan” by the end of the year that will outline its proposal to protect the grid from increased environmental-related threats. Purington also said CMP anticipates it will have connected more than 500 MW of clean energy by the end of 2023, with more to come in the future. The company has previously faced criticism for its record of opposing many legislative efforts to expand renewable energy in Maine.
In an email, spokesperson Jonathan Breed also noted that in its latest rate case, CMP agreed to higher monetary penalties if it fails to meet customer service standards related to outage length and frequency, responses to customer calls, and accuracy in billing.
As a result of that rate case, CMP customers’ bills are expected to see their bills increase by about $5 dollars per month by mid-2025. While the company originally requested a much larger rate hike, Breed said CMP has worked to control prices, and he stated that increased supply side costs — which the utility doesn’t control or profit from — are to blame for much of the rising prices Mainers have seen.
For his part, Versant President John Flynn said he is “glad that most Mainers agree it’s better to work together to achieve our energy goals rather than risk massive amounts of time and money on such a risky proposal,” referring to Question 3.
“Mainers have placed their trust in us and we take that responsibility incredibly seriously,” Flynn added. “We remain laser-focused on doing what it takes to provide safe, reliable, cost-effective electricity service to our customers. Mainers can depend on us to continually improve our communications and service, help them find ways to save money, and be the utility they deserve and respect.”
Working within the system to improve accountability
Still, Hochschartner said the utilities’ for-profit business model, which requires making profits for shareholders, will inevitably be a barrier to CMP and Versant prioritizing customers and providing adequate service. But given that a statewide consumer-owned utility is not in the offing, she said pushing for greater accountability within the current system is needed.
Strengthening the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), which regulates utilities, and pursuing legislative measures that could improve Mainers’ service or hold CMP and Versant accountable for issues with costs, reliability and disconnection notices are potential reforms Pine Tree Power will discuss during its election debriefs, she said.
However, Seth Berry, a former state representative and long-time consumer-owned utility supporter, is skeptical that the current regulatory apparatus will be able to address all the issues with CMP and Versant’s service. He said one reason for that is that agencies such as the PUC have much fewer resources than CMP and Versant. Still, he acknowledged the current set up is “better than a for-profit monopoly without a regulator.”
Berry, who introduced a bill to create a statewide consumer-owned utility that was vetoed by Gov. Janet Mills in 2021, emphasized that finding ways to hold government officials accountable when it comes to utility issues — both during and after their time in office — is also crucial. He said a significant problem is former politicians and politically connected people working for CMP and Versant or their parent companies after holding high office, lending their power to those corporations.
One example is former Gov. John Baldacci, who serves as vice chairman of the board of Avangrid, CMP’s parent company.
“We must dismantle the gravy train and rip up the tracks,” Berry said.
Potential legislative action
As the upcoming legislative session approaches, there are some utility-related bills that will be taken up by the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee that could impact CMP and Versant’s operations, although many are still “concept drafts,” meaning it’s not yet clear what exactly they would do.
One draft bill from Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook) appears designed to limit the ability of utilities to shut off service to customers. CMP and Versant have collectively sent disconnection notices to about 94,000 Maine households this year. While the companies offer payment assistance programs to customers after they receive a disconnection notice, critics have said the notices are the result of rates that have climbed too high.
Lawmakers will also consider a measure sponsored by Sen. Nicole Grohoski (D-Hancock) that would require the PUC to ensure the state’s grid is managed to benefit ratepayers by encouraging the reduction of greenhouse gases and looking into technology to reduce the need for new infrastructure, among other provisions.
Overall, though, Maine Public Advocate William Harwood — who represents the interests of utility customers before the PUC — said he hasn’t seen a lot of far-reaching utility accountability measures proposed for the upcoming session. As a result, his office will be focused on the implementation of an accountability bill passed in 2022 that adopted minimum service standards and report cards for utilities as well as a process for periodic cost audits if needed — a measure public power advocates sought to make more ambitious by proposing steeper penalties for poor service.
Harwood views the utility report card as particularly important, saying accurately documenting CMP and Versant’s quality of service in an easily understandable way will be beneficial for customers.
For its part, the PUC is not planning to propose any utility accountability bills this session but is instead focused on implementing previous legislation, spokesperson Susan Faloon said. That includes the utility accountability measure passed in 2022, which requires the commission to adopt rules for CMP and Versant that include quantitative metrics around service quality, customer service, field service, and distributed energy resources interconnection, among other stipulations.
Faloon added that recent rate cases pertaining to CMP and Versant “include plans to harden the grid to improve reliability and resiliency, as well as the strictest service quality standards we have ever seen in a rate case, with built-in penalties if they are not met.” Furthermore, she said the grid planning case the commission is currently working on is meant to increase the reliability and resiliency of the state’s power system.
As Question 3 proponents seek to move forward from a disappointing election, one bright spot is the passage of Question 2, a ballot measure banning foreign governments and entities that they own, control, or influence from spending in referendums. The approval of that proposal could make it more difficult for CMP and Versant to spend on future ballot measures, although CMP has argued it would not be impacted by the measure. (CMP’s parent company Avangrid is owned by the Spanish multinational Iberdrola — which the government of Qatar has a stake in — while the sole shareholder of Versant’s owner is the Canadian city of Calgary.)
“It’s a step in the right direction … and hopefully will really be a huge help in making sure that the people of Maine are able to vote within their interests,” said Ania Wright, political and legislative specialist for the Sierra Club Maine and a supporter of the consumer-owned utility referendum.
Wright added that despite the results of Question 3, there are a number of reasons for proponents to press on with the fight, including the environmental arguments for public power. Wright noted that the first six communities across the country to achieve 100% renewable electricity were all served by a consumer-owned utility.
“We know that the movement doesn’t end here,” she said.
Another backer of Question 3, state Sen. Rick Bennett (R-Oxford), said he also remains convinced that public power is the best way forward, arguing that a consumer-owned utility would facilitate a greater reinvestment of resources into the grid.
“I think this is the time to fix the ownership model because it hasn’t served Mainers well,” he said of the current utility system. “So I would like to see that continue to be discussed, but I don’t know what mechanism we use to advance that. I guess that’s the question.”