PORTLAND, Maine — It’s noon on a Sunday, so Lucy Hochschartner is where she often is these days: hoofing around Portland’s winding neighborhoods, knocking on doors.
With her blond ponytail swinging behind her and armed with an iPhone list of likely voters, Hochschartner asks residents: “What’s your relationship like with your utility?”
For the most part, she knows the answer she’ll get. Maine’s largest utility, Central Maine Power, provides electricity around here, and it has ranked last in J.D. Power’s customer satisfaction survey of large utilities for four years running, likely thanks to Maine’s distinction of having among the nation’s highest electricity rates and worst grid reliability.
And the utility didn’t earn any new fans this spring when it sent out more than 60,000 disconnection notices to customers in arrears, an “extraordinary number,” according to the state’s public advocate, that was much higher than in previous years.
Another inflammatory issue in this fight is a widespread perception that CMP has dragged its feet in the climate battle, and as Hochschartner and other campaigners schlep from door to door, they are trying to persuade voters that, come November, there is a better way forward by casting their ballots for a new, nonprofit, consumer-owned utility called Pine Tree Power.
If the ballot question is approved, the next step would be a statewide election to choose seven of the new utility’s board members, who would then appoint six others. And over the next five to 10 years, Pine Tree Power would have to negotiate a purchase of the assets and operations of both CMP and Versant, the other utility in the state, which is also among JD Power’s worst-ranked.
Unencumbered by obligations to shareholders, proponents say, the new utility would be able to push forward on clean energy and other measures meant to reduce greenhouse emissions. The climate aspect of this extraordinary drive to unseat existing utility companies has riveted the attention of both activists and utility companies across the country, all looking toward the outcome as a possible harbinger.
“This is a definitive fight of 2023 as far as climate,” said Candice Fortin, US campaigns manager for the climate activism group 350.org. “This is a promising framework for other states to investigate.”
In California, for example, the advocacy group Public Power San Diego is pushing for a community-owned, independently run nonprofit utility. In several cities around Michigan, groups have formed to pass local ballot measures for publicly owned power. Others are watching closely.
“This isn’t just Maine acting in isolation,” said John Qua, campaign manager at Lead Locally, a nonprofit that partners with state and local organizations to support climate-related elections. “There’s a larger and notable movement of groups that are fighting for ownership and public ownership of the transition to clean energy.”
The effort in Maine is a high-stakes campaign in which both sides boast bipartisan support and powerful allies. Pine Tree Power has been endorsed by several leading conservation groups, including the Sierra Club and 350 US, as well as Senator Bernie Sanders. On the other hand, Governor Janet Mills, who has ushered in an era of ambitious climate reform in the state, opposes the effort. In a recent radio address, she called it a hostile takeover that would result in a drawn-out court battle that “threatens to set back the progress we are making in modernizing the electric grid to achieve clean energy goals and address climate change.”
Hochschartner, deputy campaign manager for Pine Tree Power, says the consumer-owned utility model has been proven to work when it comes to progress in the climate fight. As of 2018, only six US communities had 100 percent renewable electricity. All had consumer-owned utilities. Nebraska, the sole state to have a consumer-owned statewide utility, is working toward decarbonizing electricity by 2050, per state targets, and meanwhile charges its customers among the lowest rates in the nation, she said.
In trying to rally support, the yes-on-three campaign has hammered voters with messages about the existing utilities’ unpopularity, high rates, and foreign ownership. (CMP is owned by Avangrid, whose parent company is Iberdrola, a Spanish multinational; Versant is owned by ENMAX, a Canadian company.) And the campaign has made hay of claims the utilities have stood in the way of a clean energy transition by lobbying against renewable electricity projects and being slow to connect solar power to the grid — claims the utilities dispute.
Opponents of the change argue that a statewide consumer-owned utility is an untested idea, with Nebraska being the only one, and no other states have attempted a takeover of existing utilities as is being proposed in Maine.
They say the transition could be messy and prolonged, potentially delaying for years the changes proponents want, including more aggressive climate action. If voters approve Pine Tree, the utilities could sue to challenge the validity of the election, likely triggering a lengthy legal battle, some experts have said. Meanwhile, Pine Tree Power would have to purchase existing wires and infrastructure from the utilities at a fair market value — which also could end up being fought in court.
Adding another layer of complexity and delay, opponents say, is the potential for politicization within the new board, since a majority will be elected. Pine Tree Power would also have to hire a third-party company to actually run the new utility.
“This is a big task,” said Joseph Curtatone, the president of the Northeast Clean Energy Council.
Every night, those complexities take a front-and-center role in televised commercials that are bombarding Mainers with the message that “Question 3 is a risk that Mainers can’t afford — ever.” Those commercials come from Maine Affordable Energy Coalition, an anti-Pine Tree Power effort that is funded by CMP’s parent company, Avangrid.
So far, according to state ethics disclosures, Avangrid has contributed more than $18 million to oppose Question 3, and Enmax, the parent company of Versant, has contributed $8.4 million to its no-on-three political action committee, Maine Energy Progress. Our Power, a coalition of groups supporting Pine Tree Power, has received $786,000 from donors, of which $30,000 came from donations of $50 or less.
Willy Ritch, who is leading the Maine Affordable Energy Coalition campaign for CMP, argues that the risks of a publicly owned utility far outweigh any potential benefits.
“It would inevitably lead to years of lawsuits, bureaucratic wrangling, and there’d be this period of time, like 10 years or 15 years or something like that, when everything would be up in the air and the investments that we desperately need to make today to be able to pick up more solar and hook up more wind, those investments probably wouldn’t be made,” Ritch said.
Donald Kreis, consumer advocate for the state of New Hampshire, who closely follows electricity policy in the region, said that’s not necessarily the case, in part because the utilities will have heavy incentives to put their best foot forward amid any legal battles as they work to keep their companies alive. He said he would expect the companies to proceed with transitions to clean energy.
“They can, should, and indeed, must continue to do everything they otherwise would have done to plan an excellent future for those two companies and their customers,” he said.
Supporters of Pine Tree Power, meanwhile, say any continuation of the status quo is risky. Both utilities “use their millions in profit to protect the system that serves them,” said Al Cleveland, Pine Tree Power’s campaign manager. “In recent years, that has meant that they’ve fought bills to expand clean energy.”
Cleveland pointed to CMP’s history of long delays and unexpected, multimillion dollar charges to connect solar farms to the grid, which led to a settlement last year requiring CMP to invest funds to speed up grid connections.
While Pine Tree Power has steadily gained support, it’s not clear how the vote will play out in November.
In a recent poll, paid for by Versant’s political action campaign, likely voters were told the official language of the ballot question and asked, if they had to vote today, whether they would enact the bill in its entirety, or oppose it. Of respondents, 54 percent of Mainers said they opposed it, 31 percent were in favor, and 15 percent were undecided. The campaign’s supporters are undeterred, saying the polls conducted by utility-affiliated groups are biased. So far there have not been any independent polls on the ballot question.
Patty Kidder, a volunteer with the yes-on-three campaign who was one of thousands served a disconnect notice by CMP this spring, said she isn’t giving up any time soon.
“I know that there are many things contributing to climate change that I can’t do a damn thing about,” said Kidder, of Springvale, Maine. “But whatever we can do something about, we need to do. And getting rid of CMP and having control over the grid and how electricity is generated is of the utmost importance to me.”