A 21st century question: Can Maine finally enjoy the fruits of public power? We’re about to get another important discussion of that possibility.

In New York and Washington state, hydroelectricity’s enormous contribution is channeled through public systems. In Maine, hydro is produced by private owners, marked in the original name of the second-largest electric utility, Bangor Hydro-Electric.

The story of what’s by far Maine’s largest electric utility, Central Maine Power, begins with Walter Wyman, its founder, and whose namesake dam at the head of the Kennebec River Gorge represents a remarkable civil engineering project.

Wyman and Percival Baxter – then a legislator, later governor – battled over power rights, with Wyman winning when the Legislature awarded the Dead River flowage rights to CMP, rather than retain them for the public – as the Baxter family had convinced Portland to do, making the Back Cove shoreline one of our great public spaces.

Mainers had earlier used their newly acquired initiative-and-referendum in 1914 to establish a three-member Public Utilities Commission to oversee CMP, Bangor-Hydro and telephone service. Its statutory charge: “to ensure safe, reasonable and adequate service and to ensure that the rates . . . are just and reasonable.”

If we couldn’t have public power, we’d at least have regulated private power. The PUC was a novelty in its day, among the few well-paid jobs in state government. Its quasi-judicial format – three commissioners, six-year terms, independent after gubernatorial appointment – remains.

At times, notably the Curtis and Brennan administrations, the PUC regulated vigorously. At others, it’s been accused of being a utility lapdog.

Public power next made headlines when Franklin Roosevelt, watching the tides near Campobello, conceived of harnessing the Bay of Fundy’s enormous forces, and commissioned a New Deal study. It couldn’t be done then, and even now there’s only a modest pilot project.

Finally, there’s the most misunderstood project of all: proposed dams on the Allagash and St. John rivers. It’s difficult to conceive today just how remote the dam sites were. There were no roads, even logging roads, and the Canadian border region seemed the place to build.

Dickey-Lincoln, as it became known, was authorized by Congress, but like FDR’s tidal project, never built. It’s startling to read the transcript of a 1980 U.S. Senate debate between the newly appointed Democrat from Maine, George Mitchell, and the freshman Republican, Bill Cohen, with Cohen on the environmental side, and Mitchell pro-construction.

Yet Dickey-Lincoln wasn’t really about the dams, for proponents. Its public power authority would have managed electricity transfers, and test whether CMP and Bangor-Hydro rates were “reasonable.”

Because of Republican domination until 1954, Maine missed out on the 20th century public power boom – the Pacific Northwest’s great dams, the Tennessee Valley Authority. Yet Republican George Norris of Nebraska embraced public power, creating statewide cooperatives, which provide low-cost public power to all 1.9 million Nebraskans.

Maine’s lone cooperative, in Washington County, is tiny by comparison. There are municipally-owned utilities in Houlton, Kennebunk, Madison and Van Buren, with satisfied customers, but few of them.

Then there’s CMP. The behemoth Wyman created has encountered considerable turbulence since its low-cost supply, the Maine Yankee nuclear plant, shut down in 1997, pushing up rates.

In 1995, the Legislature’s ill-advised experiment in “deregulation” – read privatization – never produced the promised competitive residential market, but required CMP to sell all generating assets.

The shrunken company sold out to New York State Gas & Electric, which in turn sold to Iberdrola, the Spanish conglomerate about as remote from rural Maine’s interests as it’s possible to be.

Many missteps followed, including a now-former CMP president’s declaration on the first of what became eight days of winter outages that the utility was doing “a great job.” Then the notorious new computer billing system that may or may not “work,” but forfeited customers’ trust by the thousands.

Finally, there’s a power line proposal to carry electricity from Canada to Massachusetts that, whatever its merits, isn’t improving CMP’s standing.

In response, the Legislature has a new bill calling for CMP to be converted to a cooperative under public management – a collaboration between an old hand, Gordon Weil, who was the PUC’s first Public Advocate, and Rep. Seth Berry, who co-chairs the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee.

Could it happen? Is it feasible? Is it legal? These questions will be subject to intense debate, as reports prepared for the PUC and others flow in.

Nothing like this has been done since the New Deal, and – following the failure to create Maine public power in the 1970s – prospects might not seem bright. Just because a good idea didn’t work before, however, is no reason to conclude it couldn’t now.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, opinion writer and author for 35 years, has published books about George Mitchell, and the Maine Democratic Party. He welcomes comment at [email protected]

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