Bill to replace CMP, Versant with consumer-owned power gains committee approval

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Jun. 1—An amended bill to create a consumer-owned electricity distribution utility in Maine cleared a key hurdle Tuesday when it was strongly endorsed by a legislative committee, setting it on course for consideration by the full Legislature and, ultimately, Maine voters.

By a 9-2 margin, with two lawmakers absent, the Energy, Utilities and Technology committee voted ought-to-pass on L.D. 1708.

The bill would force the state's two dominant, investor-owned utilities, Central Maine Power Co. and Versant Power, to sell their assets and set in motion the creation of Pine Tree Power Co., a privately operated, nonprofit company controlled by an elected board.

Tuesday's vote followed a short work session in the committee to hammer out language details on the far-reaching measure, which would upend more than a century of ownership in the poles and wires that bring electricity to 96 percent of the state's homes and businesses.

But behind the quick action was a protracted effort. Supporters have been trying for years to flip what they see as a flawed business model that favors investors to one that benefits consumers and speeds a transition to an electric grid that can accommodate the renewable energy infrastructure needed to fight climate change. Tuesday's vote brought them one step closer.

The Legislature's Judiciary Committee next will review language in the bill related to the Maine Freedom of Access Act. It then will go before the full House and Senate for further votes.

A wild card in the process is the position of Gov. Janet Mills. She has been outwardly mum on the proposal. But in a marathon public hearing on the bill last month that lasted nine hours and attracted 167 pieces of testimony, her energy director said it "raises substantial and serious questions that deserve a great deal more examination and research by the Legislature."

But on Tuesday, bill supporters were celebrating.

"This has been, for me, a three-year journey," said Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, the bill's lead sponsor and a longtime CMP critic.

Berry was joined by Sen. Mark Lawrence, D-York, who co-chairs the committee with him, as well as six other Democrats and one Republican, Rep. Nathan Carlow, R-Buxton. Two Republicans, Rep. Steven Foster, R-Dexter, and Rep. Nathan Wadsworth, R-Hiram, were opposed. Two other Republican lawmakers on the committee were absent.

"As an independent nonprofit with an elected board and private sector operations, the Pine Tree Power Co. will allow us to control our own money and our own energy destiny — to advance fast and fairly toward our own clean energy and connectivity future," Berry said after the vote.

Our Power, a coalition supporting the bill, said in a statement that it was the first time in history that a Maine legislative committee had voted to put the power of the electrical grid directly in the control of state residents.

Prior to the vote, committee members expressed views that will foreshadow debate in the full Legislature — as well as in public — before a potential November referendum.

"This is definitely a government takeover of what's currently a private enterprise," Foster told the panel, explaining his opposition.

But the bill's supporters saw it differently.

"It's not a government takeover," countered Rep. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth. "It's a consumer takeover."

Versant, CMP and an interest group formed to oppose the bill voiced disappointment about the committee's action.

"This legislation continues to pose many unanswered questions, uncertainty for years to come and significant cost liabilities for the people of Maine," said Judy Long, a Versant spokeswoman.

Versant also raised the specter of government control after the vote.

"A government power takeover will threaten our state's ability to do the work our citizens demand to keep pace with an evolving energy landscape," Long said.

David Flanagan, CMP's executive board chair, said the proposal would be costly to customers and workers.

"The proposed legislation would increase rates, put Maine customers on the hook for $13 billion or more in acquisition costs, create uncertainty for CMP's 650 union workers and put more than 350 good-paying professional jobs in jeopardy so that a politically elected board — with no utility expertise — can take over the operation of the Maine grid," Flanagan said.

Willy Ritch, executive director of Maine Affordable Energy, said residents won't want their elected representatives to push through a bill that will have undesirable impacts.

"Creating a government-controlled electric utility, taking on $13 billion in debt and getting the state involved in a legal and bureaucratic battle that would likely last at least a decade isn't going to be very popular with Mainers," Ritch said.

Bill supporters, however, say rates actually will go down, the debt price will be lower and the transition time shorter — three uncertain elements that both lawmakers and voters will face in making their decisions.

Bill supporters cited often repeated statistics about CMP's poor performance and customer dissatisfaction to underscore why such a drastic step is necessary. Contrary to social media posts and other communication from opponents claiming the bill is rushed and lawmakers should "do their job," Rep. Chris Kessler, D-South Portland, said the bill had been carefully crafted after three years of deliberation.

"If our utilities did their job, we wouldn't be here now," he said.

But even as the bill was amended and details inserted to address concerns raised during a public hearing last month, other questions remained.

For instance, the Maine Public Utilities Commission would play a key role in assessing the "fitness to serve" of CMP and Versant and overseeing their sales. A provision in state law would require the assessment as part of the transition.

During the committee's deliberations, Foster asked PUC Chair Phil Bartlett, who was participating in the Zoom meeting, about the agency's role during a potential, drawn-out court battle over the takeover.

Specifically, Foster wanted to know how the PUC could make sure the utilities continue to invest in the grid and maintain reliable service for years, even if they know they're about to lose their assets.

"That's a bit of what keeps me up at night," Bartlett replied, making a distinction between maintaining basic service and making long-term investments to support a world of electric cars and heat pumps. "We don't know how that would play out."

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