Power companies and their critics clash over proposal for consumer-owned utility

Power companies and their critics clash over proposal for consumer-owned utility

May 15, 2019 Off By administrator

AUGUSTA — Creating a public power authority in Maine could lower rates and improve the reliability of electric service, or it could plunge the state into an unknown and risky undertaking and costly litigation, a legislative committee was told Tuesday.

The idea of Maine buying the state’s two investor-owned utilities – Central Maine Power and Emera Maine – and creating a consumer-owned power authority surfaces periodically, but it has failed to gain traction in the past. CMP’s fumbling of a recent billing system changeover, however, as well as lingering frustration from widespread power outages following a 2017 storm, have breathed new life into the concept.

CMP’s political adversaries now see their best chance in years to tap into the public’s unrest, to realize their goal of a consumer-owned electric company serving most of Maine. That is the intent of L.D. 1646, which was the subject of a long, contentious hearing Tuesday afternoon before the committee that handles energy matters.

The bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, laid out a simple premise. CMP and Emera customers are paying high rates, but get relatively poor service. Contrast that to a state such as Nebraska, which has a statewide, consumer-owned utility ranked high for reliable service at reasonable rates, and the decision to make a similar transformation in Maine is an easy one.

Berry has worked to build support in part by highlighting CMP’s foreign ownership and loss of local control. Run for a century out of Maine, CMP today is in the networks division of Avangrid, which itself is largely owned by Iberdrola, based in Bilbao, Spain.

“It’s time to control our power from Maine, not Spain,” Berry said.

But officials from the power companies made it clear that they would fight what they consider to be a government takeover of their businesses, in court as well as in the Legislature.

Rep. Seth Berry, sponsor of the bill to create a public power utility, said, “It’s time to control our power from Maine, not Spain.”

Doug Herling, CMP’s president and chief executive, said the proposal raises serious constitutional questions.

“The Maine Power Delivery Authority bill proposes to seize private company assets that are not for sale and put them into the public domain,” Herling said in testimony.

Herling also rebutted the contention of public power supporters that CMP’s parent company ships earnings overseas and doesn’t reinvest in Maine.

For nearly a decade, according to Herling, Maine has benefited from annual CMP investment of over $300 million in assets and infrastructure – a six-fold increase since CMP became part of the Iberdrola group.

“In fact,” he said, “over 100 percent of CMP’s earnings during this period have been reinvested in the Maine electric grid.”

Emera Maine’s parent company is headquartered in Nova Scotia. But pending regulatory approval, it’s about to be sold to another Canadian utility company,…

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