By Josh Keefe, Maine Focus Reporter
December 23, 2019 6:00 am
On an unusually cold November night, Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, co-chair of the legislative committee charged with regulating the state’s utilities, stood in the auditorium at Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham. Before a crowd of roughly 60 people, he explained his plan to seize control of the Maine electric grid from the state’s two largest electric companies and their foreign shareholders.
Berry introduced a bill earlier this year that would have the state form an independent agency called the Maine Power Delivery Authority. The authority would buy out investor-owned electric distribution companies Emera Maine and Central Maine Power. If the bill becomes law, Berry’s proposal would transform Maine’s energy industry and effectively banish CMP — one of Maine’s most controversial companies and most powerful political players — from the state.
The Maine Public Utilities Commission has hired an independent consultant to study the proposal, with a report due in February. Berry expects a vote on his bill shortly after, and he has been giving talks across much of the state to drum up support. The day before he spoke at Mt. Ararat, he presented his plan to 40 or so rotarians over a lunch of Teriyaki beef and scalloped potatoes in Belfast. The previous week he spoke to more than 100 credit union members in Lewiston.
“I’m trying to have as many conversations as possible,” Berry said. “Some nights I’m on and some not. But I like being on tour,” he said.
While Berry’s exact plan is new, the battle he is fighting is nearly as old as the light bulb. For nearly 140 years, politicians like Berry have been trying to wrest control of power — both the kind that moves electrons and the kind that decides elections — from for-profit electric utilities. It’s a struggle that has long been about the cost and reliability of electricity, but has taken on a new focus and urgency as Maine and the world confront climate change.
Experts say fighting climate change will require trillions of dollars of investment in the U.S. electric grid as large parts of the economy, such as transportation and heating, move away from fossil fuels to clean energy.
“This is not a new issue,” Berry said. “But what is new is that never before has the electrical grid been of more profound importance to our future, to the very survival of our species.”
Berry told the crowd how consumer-owned utilities have cheaper rates, shorter outages and greater accountability to customers, the same sort of arguments public power advocates have been making — with various levels of success — for a century. But he also argued the transition to clean energy needed to avert the worst climate change scenarios requires public power, which frees utilities from paying investors and gives them access to low-interest financing.
To pay for the transition to a decarbonized grid, Maine needs consumer-owned utilities or “it won’t pencil out,” Berry said.
State leaders in California have advocated turning PG&E, currently in bankruptcy proceedings, into a public utility after its equipment started wildfires that killed nearly 100 people. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders has advocated for a national public power program as part of a Green New Deal.
Despite those other examples, Berry’s takeover proposal is unprecedented, experts said. While some cities and towns across the country have taken ownership of their utilities in recent decades, no state in recent memory has taken over two investor utilities at once. The audacity of the plan would seem to doom it.
But the politics of the moment and CMP’s continued missteps have created a unique situation. Berry’s party controls Augusta. Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, is a co-sponsor of Berry’s bill, along with seven Democrats and two Republicans. And CMP is now the least popular utility in the entire country, according to a recent survey, even less popular than PG&E. CMP is currently under investigation and facing a potential class-action lawsuit related to the $57 million billing system it launched in late 2017.
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