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Pine Tree Power supporters sell hope while detractors lean on uncertainty at industry forum


Pine Tree Power supporters sell hope while detractors lean on uncertainty at industry forum

Sep 19, 2023 | 5:32 pm ET
By Eloise Goldsmith
Pine Tree Power supporters sell hope while detractors lean on uncertainty at industry forum
Supporters and opponents of Question 3, a proposal to buy out the state's largest investor-owned utilities debated for industry professionals at the E2Tech forum in Augusta on Tuesday. (Eloise Goldsmith/ Maine Morning Star)

Dozens of Mainers rose early Tuesday morning to attend a debate over the merits of Question 3, a measure that — if approved by voters this fall– would create the nonprofit Pine Tree Power to provide service to most of the state and push two for-profit utilities, Central Maine Power and Versant, out of business. 

Supporters of Pine Tree Power doubled down on now familiar messaging that the current investor-owned utility structure does not work for consumers– pointing to poor customer service, reliability issues, the urgent need for a transition to renewable energy, and CMP and Versant’s corporate, for-profit structure.

Meanwhile, opponents invoked the many unknowns, arguing that Maine residents are better off using the legislature and utility commission to hold CMP and Versant accountable to consumers.

“Our choice is between hope and fear,” said Seth Berry, a former seven-term Democratic member of the Maine House of Representatives, who helped launch the Our Power campaign, which is driving the effort to purchase CMP and Versant’s transmission and distribution systems. He spoke alongside Lucy Hochschartner, deputy campaign manager for Our Power.

Jim Cohen, a member of the CMP-funded Maine Affordable Energy Coalition and a partner at Verrill Law, and Tina Riley, another former Democratic member of the Maine House, argued against Question 3. Energy attorney Jeff Thaler presided over the discussion. 

At least half of those in attendance were from the business community, according Eric Howard, the executive director of E2Tech, the entity that put on the forum. 

Kay Mann, a program officer with Augusta-based Maine PowerOptions, an energy purchasing consortium, said she personally likes the idea of a consumer-owned utility but was excited to hear both sides present their arguments. She said she hasn’t experienced astronomical rate hikes or poor service from the existing utilities, but has heard horror stories from ratepayers while doing community outreach for the Maine Green Power program, which allows energy consumers to elect to have their power come from green sources.

Hochschartner kicked off the conversation by reading some testimonials from ratepayers and maintaining Mainers could expect to save $9 billion over 30 years if the state switches to a consumer-owned utility. She also accused CMP and Versant of relying on the playbook used by oil and gas companies who wield their deep pockets to “sow doubt” about energy alternatives and climate change. The parent companies of Versant and CMP have poured millions into the campaign to defeat the referendum.

Cohen and Riley claimed that the transition to a consumer-owned model would take a long time. “Conservatively, we’ll be in 2030 by the time the new board makes an offer [to purchase the existing utilities],” Cohen said, “and then we’ll write them a blank check.”

The sides also sparred over how large that check would be. Purchasing the existing utilities will cost multiple billions of dollars but the exact amount will be decided in court.

Towards the end of the debate, Berry brought the conversation back to the urgent need to upgrade the energy infrastructure and concluded by appealing to listeners’ sense of courage: “This is a David and Goliath election… We know that Maine can do big things here.”

Will Mainers vote their two biggest utilities out?

The opposition’s closing argument was that Mainers are better off with the status quo. “Ideologically, I like consumer-owned utilities. But pragmatically this is a risk,” said Riley.

Multiple debate attendees, who largely worked in energy and other environmental industries, said they appreciated the discussion from both sides. 

“Both sides [were] very well spoken,” said John Ferland, president of Ocean Renewable Power Company in Portland. Ferland said he appreciated hearing some of the risks highlighted by the opposition.

For Chris Byers of Branch Renewable Energy in North Yarmouth, stability was top of mind. “My concern as a developer is predictability and understanding a market,” he said.

From his perspective, it makes more sense to support what he saw as the “momentum that Versant and CMP have tried to build and not throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Kristy Bishop, who works for the engineering consulting group Sevee Maher & Engineers, said she arrived with no strong preference and the conversation left her feeling like she needed to read the studies referenced during the discussion.

“What I’ve learned is that I need to do more research.”