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Consumer-owned utility experts from other states argue benefits of Maine system


Consumer-owned utility experts from other states argue benefits of Maine system

Sep 22, 2023 | 1:58 pm ET
By Emma Davis
Consumer-owned utility experts from other states argue benefits of Maine system
An electrical worker surveys damaged power lines after an ice storm. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

While more than 200 Central Maine Power customers were still without service across four counties after Atlantic storm Lee Friday morning, proponents of consumer-owned utilities discussed how to better keep Mainers’ lights on for less. 

Our Power, the campaign behind the proposed buyout of the state’s investor-owned utilities that Mainers will have the chance to vote on in November, hosted experts from other states in a virtual press conference to discuss their model’s benefits. 

Namely, they heralded quicker power restoration times, a public accountability model and a long-term focus. 

Maine consistently has long power outages and a low utility reliability ranking compared to other states. According to a 2021 review by Chicago-based consumer watchdog the Citizen’s Utility Board, Maine ranked second to last in the nation in terms of reliability, which looked at both the frequency and duration of power outages. Maine also ranked 42 out of 50 states on overall utility performance, a score which was determined by averaging each state’s rankings in the categories of reliability, affordability and environmental responsibility. 

Consumer-owned utility proponents argue such a model is the solution. Customers of a publicly-owned power utility are likely to be without power for less time – 76 minutes compared to 138 minutes a year for customers of private utilities, outside of storms — said Adrienne Lotto, senior vice president of grid security, technical and operations for the American Public Power Association, an advocacy group that represents and advises public power utilities that serve more than 49 million people across states.

Consumer-owned utility experts from other states argue benefits of Maine system
Eric Williams, board chair and director of Omaha Public Power District. (screenshot via Our Power)

The consumer-owned model offers greater public transparency and accountability, said Eric Williams, board chair and director of Omaha Public Power District. Williams was elected to the board in Nebraska that would mirror that of the proposed governing board in Maine. 

“The structure of delivering the accountable reporting to the board of directors in view of the public and then having that information available later for reference by our customer owners is really the strength of public power,” Williams said. 

According to former international utility consultant Bill Dunn, public utilities are also able to invest upfront in better equipment because they can finance it using tax-exempt debt, which Dunn says will improve reliability. 

Responding to Gov. Mills

Earlier this week, Gov. Janet Mills voiced her opposition to the creation of a consumer-owned utility in Maine, consistent with her earlier veto of a legislative proposal to create such a utility in 2021. Several of Mills’ key concerns — cost, structure and setbacks — were addressed Friday. 

While Mills voiced concern about court battles that would likely ensue if Pine Tree Power takes over service in Maine, Dunn said Friday, “but once you go through it, you’re in another place. If you don’t go through it, you’re stuck with where we are.”

The governing board that would be elected to govern the proposed Pine Tree Power Company was another concern for Mills. Seth Berry, former Maine state representative and public power proponent, asked participants about whether politicians should be running the grid. Williams, the elected official on Nebraska’s board, responded that elections are nonpartisan. 

I recently thought back about what are the political affiliations of some of my colleagues and realized that I wasn’t even sure,” he said. 

Mills’ opposition to the board was also grounded in the fact that the board would be required to contract with an operator to run the transmission and utility’s assets, which she argued would look a lot like the current investor-owned utilities, CMP and Versant.

Existing investors and utilities can be bidders, Berry explained, but CMP and Versant do not qualify, according to the fitness test of the Pine Tree Power referendum. “However, it is possible that qualified utility managers could form a team and maybe some of them come from the local company themselves and local management team,” he said.

John Clark, former president of the Northern Maine Independent System Administrator, which administers the transmission systems of the investor-owned and cooperatively-owned utilities in Northern Maine, is of the view that the state ought to tap into existing talent. 

“Nobody’s faulting the people that are doing the work,” Clark said. “It’s the policies.”