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Fight for public power in Maine heats up

by | May 23, 2021 | Environment, News, Organizing, Reports

According to Maine Beacon, LD 1708, put forward by Rep. Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham) and a bipartisan slate of co-sponsors, and supported by Maine Public Power (initiated by the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America) and the Our Power Coalition, “would be the first step toward establishing the Pine Tree Power Company, a non-profit, consumer-owned utility [COU]. If the bill passes, the question of whether to create the Pine Tree Power Company as a replacement for the state’s two main private power companies, Central Maine Power and Versant, would then be put to voters in a statewide referendum.”

On Thursday, May 20, a large majority of the dozens of Mainers who testified at a hearing for the bill, spoke in favor of creating a public utility, placing the clear, dependable, and pro-union power distribution above the interests of share-holder profits. Here, Pine and Roses presents excerpts from some of Thursday’s testimony from Mainers all over the state.

Kristina Catomeris, Portland: I am a special education teacher, and access to reliable internet is a necessity for both myself and my students. The field of teaching has changed dramatically this past year, and many students still face uncertainty with their return to school. Others are at risk of being held back. Access to the internet is now a determining factor for student success, and an investor-owned utility can enable the much needed high-speed internet rollout that CMP and Versant can’t. Reliable broadband is no longer just necessary for on-site education. It is now critical for facilitating education itself, allowing students and teachers to fully participate in online learning, and access required tools such as digital textbooks and online assessments… On a much more personal level, many of my students are nonverbal, and rely on devices with consistent internet access to be able to communicate their needs. Constraints to bandwidth access therefore threaten to undermine these students’ fundamental rights to education, along with decades of investments towards making schools more accessible and equitable for all. A growing differential in broadband access threatens to perpetuate further educational and digital inequities between rural, urban, rich, and poor. This bill has the potential to not only address, but actively reduce these inequalities.

Gary Ridlon, Kennebunkport: My name is Gary Ridlon and I’ve lived in Maine all my life. I strongly support this legislation because as a 86-year-old lobsterman, I care about preserving the way of life for fishermen like me and the fishermen who will come after me, and a COU is one of the simplest and most effective ways to do that. I’ve been lobstering down in Cape Porpoise for over seventy years. My father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were lobstermen too. But things are changing, and we need to act now before we lose our lobstering industry in Maine. The Maine Climate Council says that the Gulf of Maine is already warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans. They say Maine’s lobster and clam fisheries are shrinking because of it. I’m no scientist, but I know these waters and I’m already seeing the impact. We need to take action fast to protect our industry, our fishing communities, and ourselves. Investor-owned utilities like CMP don’t care about climate change. They don’t care about us lobstermen. They don’t care about the oceans. They care about profit, and they fight against our interests to make more money. CMP also doesn’t care about the Mainers who depend on them for power. My late wife was battling breast cancer and was in hospice care and hooked up to an oxygen machine when the power went out for days. I had to find an oxygen tank to replace her machine. The power remained out for a couple days, without the help of a nurse and my daughters who went looking for an oxygen tank, my wife would have died during that outage. I’ve been around a long time and I know that Mainers take care of each other. We know each other and we can depend on each other. CMP is only interested in profit, but I trust a COU to help protect Maine against climate change and power outages, not just because that will be the law, but also because that’s what Mainers do—support each other and the community.

Ethan Bien, Lubec: It seems obvious to me Versant and CMP have forgotten an important point of history: the state of Maine granted these monopolies to CMP and Versant in exchange for “reliability, affordability, and availability.” We are getting none of this, particularly in rural Maine, and it is time to take our monopolies back. But what do our for-profit power companies spend money on, when it’s not grid resiliency? I hope we stop them with a referendum this November, but CMP is currently plowing ahead with their Corridor. Voters in New Hamphsire and Vermont turned down this plan, and polling shows the Corridor is exceedingly unpopular among the people of Maine, yet CMP is out there putting up poles. Why is that? It’s actually quite simple—CMP serves its shareholders, not its customers. And this is the fatal flaw with private ownership of a utility.

Tessa Rosenberry, Rockland: Not only have Maine’s existing, investor-owned utilities not facilitated a transition to renewable energy, there is evidence to suggest they have been actively investing in its obstruction… I can see a future where Maine’s climate goals aren’t only met, but exceeded. Where the previously underrepresented and underserved are not only benefactors, but leaders in building this better future. And this future isn’t so out of reach, really. But we won’t reach it when far-off private interests are the ones at the wheel. A consumer-owned utility is a vital and meaningful step in the right direction. Placing control of our utilities in our own hands will allow us to align its operations with our values, to reinvest revenues in necessary infrastructure and labor, and to ensure that it serves us today and continues to serve us into the future.

Joe DeGraff, Portland: I work in the telecom industry helping organizations design and build fiber networks. One topic frequently brought up by the ISPs, co-ops, and construction firms who are designing these new networks is how to obtain the location information and permitting requirements of telephone poles. For smaller providers, especially on the municipal level, the costs of obtaining pole information represents a large financial burden… Maine is still one of the lowest-ranked states for internet speeds and access, and the voters of Maine know that expanding broadband is a top priority. It was only last year where we voted to bond $15 million for that very cause. But making more money available is only part of the solution because CMP and Versant’s high make-ready fees and other charges have blocked rural broadband development… Combined with the investment already allocated from the state and federal government, a COU committed to expanding rural broadband would be a boon for the municipalities and organizations working on this issue. LD1708 represents more money going to our state’s priorities and less to private interests.

Sarah Miller, Camden: Maine needs an electricity transmission and distribution utility that helps rather than hinders the transition to renewable energy. Private companies like CMP and Versant almost by definition can’t be agents for such change. A public utility can. The transition not only involves changing power generation to solar and wind, it requires electrifying almost everything. This, in turn, requires more electricity, delivered efficiently and dependably… Meters even “smarter” than those associated with CMP’s billing debacle will be central to the transition in most places. We know how bad CMP is at running them. Elsewhere, upgrading a centralized grid may not be the optimal solution in any case. With battery costs down 85 percent over the decade, what works best will increasingly be off-grid solar and wind, with battery and other backup. Such systems can be highly resilient—if designed around the particular needs of particular places. But for-profit utilities won’t choose off-grid generation, because it doesn’t expand the rate base… Despite Maine’s admirable carbon emission goals, it risks being left behind unless it has an electric utility that is a partner in the effort—a utility that Mainers themselves own and control. 

Mikki Rice, Freeman Township: I am not joking one bit when I tell you that I have lost power at least five times in the past two months, and as you know we have had a very mild winter and spring this year. My children’s school has even had to cancel school two times within the past two months for power outages. During remote learning, if the teachers don’t have electricity they can’t hook up to the internet and they can’t teach their classes. It’s not like I’m just in a bad area either. The Energy Information Administration’s Annual Electric Power Industry Report says that Maine is one of the four worst U.S. states for the number of outages per customer and has some of the longest outages in the nation. CMP and Versant have had decades to deliver reliable power and haven’t done it because they are focused on profits over people. They don’t want to put money into the Grid because that takes money out of their pockets. They aren’t Mainers so why should they care about Mainers?

Priscilla Gilman, Southwest Harbor: I have lived most of my adult life homebound by chronic illness… Power outages can be a challenge for anybody, but for those with severe chronic illnesses the stakes climb. Some rely on electrically powered medical equipment and are in grave danger when power fails—even if they can afford expensive home generators, which can also fail or run out of fuel. In rural areas where water is drawn from wells, no power means no bathing, flushing, or water out of the tap, and alternatives must be managed—a heavy burden when the basics of eating and dressing are precarious… Investor-owned utilities have had decades to prove they can provide reliable service to Mainers. They haven’t done it and medically vulnerable Mainers suffer disproportionately during power outages. 

Dwight Hobbs, Whitefield: I am a 32-year-old living in Lincoln County, the oldest in the country by median age. Just below 40 percent of Lincoln County residents over the age of sixty live alone, close to the state average. These Mainers are currently serviced by the least-reliable utility in the country, which is simply unacceptable. Our family, friends and neighbors deserve better reliability… I note my age in comparison to illustrate an additional problem for Maine—the need to attract young people to the state, and the ability to convince young Mainers to either stay or make their way back. Safety for older Mainers on one hand and competitiveness for younger Mainers on the other, are two major issues where we can do better—and where a consumer-owned utility can play an important role… No matter your age, Mainers deserve a democratic say in the running of an essential public service. Thank you for considering my testimony. 

Images courtesy of Maine Public Power.

Pine and Roses Editorial Collective

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