POWNAL — Customers of Central Maine Power are like the bottled genie in “The Arabian Nights.” For the first thousand years, he dreamed of the riches he would bestow on his liberator; for the next thousand, he plotted the ways in which the deliverer could be tortured.

People are so thankful to have the lights back on after a week or more in the dark that they tend to forget and forgive, which does nothing to prevent such problems from occurring again after the next inevitable windstorm. The delays in power restoration after the devastating late-October storm were so unconscionable that Mainers greeted guests with “Welcome to Puerto Rico North.”

The situation was bad to begin with, because of the unusual direction that the storm’s winds took, but it was made worse by the trend among utilities to cut back on staff, relying upon unreliable electronics, such as “smart meters” and the optimistic and erroneous CMP website, while contracting out vital services. The result has been a lack of routine maintenance, which would have reduced the damage considerably. In Pownal, for exampple, we have not seen a maintenance or tree-trimming crew on our heavily wooded road for five years. And while there was plenty of prior warning about the storm, the company seemed totally unprepared.

In speaking with individual employees of CMP, I have received an impression of resentment over management practices, demoralization and sour mirth about the advertising slogan “Flip a switch and we’re there.”

Shortly after the storm, the Portland Press Herald reported that rates will be increased to pay for the necessary repairs to the electrical grid. I doubt that these increases will ever be rescinded. This is known as “disaster capitalism.” Delivering power is CMP’s business, its only business, and there is no reason that customers should pay for its lack of maintenance when they have no choice about who delivers their power.

Perhaps customers should share some of the burden, but so should the shareholders of Iberdrola, CMP’s Spanish parent company. They have profited handsomely from the lax regulatory climate in Maine, which has allowed the utility to cut costs while it enjoys a guaranteed return on investment of 10 to 12 percent.


There are a number of things that might be done politically to alleviate problems in the future. The most obvious would be to mandate decentralized solar power. The system that exists now is obsolete. There is something delightfully anachronistic about providing a vital service by means of strands of copper strung between dead trees. It is equivalent to communicating via tin cans and stretched string. The power companies know this, which is why they fight so viciously to penalize those foresighted enough to install solar arrays.

A few other ideas:

Mandate underground lines in new construction and the proper maintenance of existing overhead lines.

 Depoliticize the appointment of members of the Public Utilities Commission. Those named by the current governor seem to work for CMP rather than its customers.

 Promote solar and wind power with monetary incentives and reasonable payment for power generated. Repeal the elimination of net metering.

 Limit utility return on investment, thereby reducing incentives to cut vital staff and services. A few percentage points above the rate for bank certificates of deposit would seem about right.


 Prohibit advertising by regulated monopolies.

If anyone doubts that these objectives can be accomplished, go to burlingtonelectric.com, the website of the municipally owned Burlington (Vermont) Electric Department.

Arguments against such measures are generally economic, but higher costs for electricity are not necessarily a bad thing. Manufacturers don’t care (they pass the cost along to customers), while higher rates for private accounts would lead to greater efficiency, and a turn to alternative sources with less pollution and contribution to global warming.

In Europe, where they already have widespread local generation, one is still universally condemned for leaving a light on in an empty room. Let’s not let our unfettered genie lose his sense of outrage. We’ve been kept in the dark for too long.

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