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Our Power Delivers Signatures For Referendum On Consumer-Owned Utility

Above Photo: Andrew Blunt of Our Power speaks at Monday’s press conference. Beacon.

A group seeking to place an initiative on the November 2023 ballot to replace Maine’s unpopular investor-owned utilities, Central Maine Power and Versant, with a nonprofit power company submitted over 80,000 signatures Monday, far exceeding the total needed to trigger a referendum.

Our Power, the group spearheading the campaign, announced its haul at a press conference at the State House before handing its petitions into the Secretary of State’s Office. That office now has a month to verify the signatures, but with a wide margin over the slightly more than 63,000 signatures needed for a ballot initiative, Our Power’s referendum is very likely to be on the ballot in November 2023.

“We have news for you, CMP and Versant, and for your greedy corporate and foreign-government owners. Today, over 80,000 Maine voters are ready to revoke your monopoly privilege,” Andrew Blunt, executive director of Our Power, said at Monday’s press conference. “Today, we are here standing with them, and standing up for the people and the businesses of Maine. Today we are here to take back our money, and to take back our power.”

The referendum will ask Mainers if they want to replace CMP and Versant with the Pine Tree Power Company, a nonprofit, consumer-owned utility that would provide power to most municipalities in Maine, except the 97 Maine towns already served by other consumer-owned utilities. The legislature passed a bill in 2021 to put the same question to the voters in November of that year, but that measure was vetoed by Gov. Janet Mills, prompting Our Power to launch the referendum effort instead.

However, the idea to replace CMP and Versant — Maine’s two largest utilities — was originally spurred by those utilities’ poor performances. Both are investor-owned, meaning they have to deliver profit to shareholders. In contrast, the Pine Tree Power Company would be consumer-owned, allowing it to invest in improving services for Mainers rather than providing shareholders with more money, Our Power has argued.

At the group’s press conference Monday and during its signature gathering campaign, Our Power pointed out that CMP has the worst customer satisfaction among large and mid-sized utilities in the country and Versant is among the worst rated. In addition, under those utilities, Mainers have endured the most power outages of any state and the second longest period with no power. Despite that, electricity rates in Maine are the sixth highest in the country, and CMP made $40.5 million in profit in the second quarter of 2022.

Even with the high rates, CMP and Versant have continued to request price hikes. This year, CMP filed for a rate increase that would raise bills for the average Maine household by $120 a year while Versant requested an increase that would raise the price by an average of $126 a year. Our Power has argued that those rate increase requests are all the more alarming considering that CMP’s leading owners are the governments of Norway and Qatar while Versant is owned by Calgary, Canada, meaning Maine is sending millions in funds out of the state and country.

“Until we take back our power, CMP and Versant will play every trick in the book, and take all the candy in the bowl,” Blunt said.

In contrast to the poor service provided by CMP and Versant, consumer-owned utility advocates argue that the Pine Tree Power Company would boost reliability for ratepayers by investing money into improving and updating the grid rather than focusing on profits. Proponents have also stated that the Pine Tree Power Company would lead to lower rates for consumers — a point that has held true for the consumer-owned utilities that already serve part or all of 97 towns in Maine.

Overall, economists have estimated that moving to a consumer-owned utility that cuts off the profit motive in utility service will save Maine people $9 billion over 30 years, with net savings from the very beginning.

Having a consumer-owned utility, rather than for-profit utilities like CMP and Versant, will also speed along Maine’s clean energy transition, advocates said. Maine’s grid will need $10 billion to $15 billion in investments for the transition from fossil fuels to renewable electricity. Companies like CMP and Versant would finance those upgrades in an expensive way, adding to their profits, according to Our Power. In contrast, the proposed Pine Tree Power Company would borrow at a much lower rate, allowing that transition to happen at a more cost effective rate.

Ania Wright of Sierra Club Maine, one of the lead proponents of the Our Power campaign, said Monday that the state’s grid is not currently ready for the clean energy transition needed to combat climate change. Remaining with the status quo utility system won’t change that, she said.

“If we choose to stick with CMP and Versant through that shift, all of us Maine ratepayers, many of whom are already struggling to pay their bills, will bear the cost,” she said.

Monday’s event also featured remarks from Mainers who spent months collecting signatures for the Our Power initiative, including Linda Woods, a retired teacher and environmental advocate in Waterville. Woods, along with her church group, spent long hours gathering signatures for the campaign and having conversations with Mainers. Those discussions left a lasting impact on her, she said, noting that many people shared their experience of having an investor-owned utility as their power provider.

“Collecting signatures was easy, but listening to people’s horror stories about their experiences with CMP was heartbreaking,” Woods said. “I heard multiple stories of exorbitant charges and prolonged outages and some [people] going days without power in the winter and having no response from CMP.”

Another person who spoke was Wil Thieme of Maine Public Power, a project of the Maine Democratic Socialist of America, which supports the ballot measure campaign. Thieme estimated that the group collected about 20,000 signatures for the Our Power initiative over the past year.

“Public power is the right direction for all Mainers. We remain committed to our vision of a democratic, accountable power company for Maine and have worked tirelessly to give Maine people the choice they deserve,” he said.

Still, despite the breadth of support for the Our Power initiative, the ballot campaign is certain to generate forceful opposition from CMP, Versant and other opponents. Indeed, directly after the Our Power event Monday, a coalition of groups, including the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, sent out a press release decrying the initiative. In that release, they said the referendum campaign to provide Mainers with a choice over their energy future is an attempted “hostile takeover of the electric grid” and claimed the measure would “create a tremendously volatile business environment in Maine for years to come.”

Part of that opposition campaign will likely be large-scale spending against the Our Power initiative by groups with ties to CMP and Versant. In fact, that spending is already well underway. For example, in 2022 alone, Maine Affordable Energy — a group opposing the referendum whose top donor is CMP parent company Avangrid — spent over $7 million.

In addition, No Blank Checks — another group opposed to public power whose top donor is also Avangrid — spent over $423,000 against the initiative. And Maine Energy Progress — yet another group against the referendum whose founding organizations include Versant — spent over $428,000 opposing the effort in 2022. In contrast, Our Power has spent a little over $311,000 in favor of the campaign during that time.

Furthermore, opponents of Our Power said Monday they had gathered the signatures needed to put a competing referendum requiring voter approval of over $1 billion in debt — which is aimed at the consumer-owned utility initiative — on the ballot in November 2023.

The spending from CMP and Versant-connected groups comes as Mainers are increasingly struggling to pay utility bills, forcing them to make difficult choices about whether to prioritize electricity or other necessities, said Amy Halsted, co-director of Maine People’s Alliance, a supporter of the Our Power Campaign. (Beacon is a project of MPA).

“These are choices that no one, no Mainer, should have to make,” Halsted said.

“It’s not right, it doesn’t have to be this way and it needs to stop,” she added. “We have put up with these companies’ greed and reckless profiteering for way too long. Our energy system is broken, but the good news is we can fix it by returning power to the people through a nonprofit, customer-owned utility.”

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