A public hearing for LD 1646, “An Act To Restore Local Ownership and Control of Maine's Power Delivery Systems” drew hundreds to the Energy, Technology and Utilities Committee hearing room Tuesday. So many appeared that two listening rooms were set up for the overflow crowd.
Rep. Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham) outlined his plan for what he called the Maine Power Delivery Authority, a quasi-governmental organization akin to the Maine Turnpike Authority, which would be self-financed. “Under Central Maine Power and Emera, Maine has the worst reliability in the 50 states, and some of the highest costs,” Berry said. “We need a future energy economy in which our system is trustworthy and transparent.”
Berry said a consumer-owned utility would be one way. Currently, the main utilities are investor-owned, which Berry said meant the fiduciary responsibility is to the shareholders, not the customers.
In addition to lower costs, he said a consumer-based utility can recoup some of its recovery costs from the federal government, which is not the case now. Now, unless it can be proven that one of the utilities was “imprudent," ratepayers pick up the whole cost of recovery.
Berry said the utilities can be acquired using low-interest revenue bonds, which will be less than the equity bonds ratepayers are financing, and as there would be no shareholders, there would also be no profits to share.
“CMP used to be a good operation, back when I was a kid,” Berry said. “But over the years, as it was sold from one entity to another, things went wrong. We’ve been too trusting.”
Berry said the cost of buying the two utilities would start with the net book value, on file at the Public Utilities Commission and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and he said the Law Court decided before that utilities can be forced to sell. That was when the utilities were divested of their energy production. “They’ll do so here, too,” he said.
Among those speaking in favor of the bill were Harpswell's Gordon Weill, Maine’s first public advocate, who said the two utilities have been “sufficiently disappointing. We are 50th in reliability, while consumer-owned utilities in Nebraska are number one.” He said paying for the utilities with tax-exempt bonds would be cheaper than what's currently being paid in profits, taxable interest, and equity bonds.
Numerous customers spoke about problems with CMP and its billing and metering issues, which, more than a year later, have yet to be resolved. Speakers included Kristy Pottle of Belfast, founder of CMP Ratepayers Unite, Stacy Kumar of Rockport, Paul Kando of Damariscotta, who runs the Midcoast Green Collaborative, Robert Warrenstrom of Camden, Rev. Darian Sawyer of Jackman, Susan Inches of North Yarmouth, Rob Levin of Portland, and Susan Lubner of Bath.
Also speaking in favor was John Clark, former general manager of a consumer-owned utility in Houlton. “People in Houlton are currently paying 10 cents per kilowatt-hour,” he said. CMP customers are paying about 17 cents per kWh, factoring in both supply and delivery.
However, others said the larger utilities can offer better service and cost. Geoffrey Ellison, who ran a small energy cooperative on Swans Island, said that as infrastructure issues loomed, they approached Emera and asked them to buy them.
Others feared they would face layoffs if their company were bought by the authority. Lawyers for the utilities promised years of litigation, and lobbyists and VPs for the utilities said the companies are trying to do better.
Others were non-committal. Public Advocate Barry Hobbins testified neither for nor against, as did Angela Monroe of the Governor’s Energy Office, and Dick Rogers, a union member who said that in recent weeks, CMP has made a commitment to its unionized workforce.