AUGUSTA — A committee tabled a proposal Thursday to convert Maine’s private electricity companies into consumer-owned utilities so the sponsor can work on changes to a bill that would transform Maine’s power-supply landscape.

However, some Republicans signaled that they are unlikely to support the measure no matter what.

“I just don’t see where this is going to benefit the people of Maine,” said Rep. Chad Wayne Grignon, R-Athens. “There are many unknowns with this.”

Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, introduced his bill last year amid the growing public backlash against Central Maine Power about overbilling and the company’s handling of an October 2018 windstorm that left hundreds of thousands without power. The bill proposes a public takeover of CMP and Emera Maine’s electricity transmission and distribution assets using low-interest revenue bonds.

The state’s electric grid would be overseen by the Maine Power Delivery Authority, which Berry and other bill supporters argue would put the interests of Maine ratepayers first rather than company shareholders or investors.

“We have part of our grid that is being sold, as we speak, to a foreign government and I do find it a little bit ironic that there are those who seem unwilling to consider a consumer-owned utility here, but are willing to accept a utility that is owned by a foreign government,” Berry told fellow members of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, which he co-chairs. “I’d like to think we can do better. I think Mainers are smart and independent and can take control of our own energy destiny to a greater extent than we have now.”

CMP’s parent company, Avangrid, is owned by the Spanish energy giant Iberdrola S.A., while Emera Maine is owned by Nova Scotia-based Emera Inc.

After caucusing behind closed doors for more than an hour Thursday, Democrats on the committee agreed to allow Berry to continue working on changes to the bill, L.D. 1646, that would be able to pick up additional support. Berry declined to provide specifics but said his amendment would continue to move forward with a consumer-owned utility that would “maximize the benefits to Maine people.”

“I believe it is important to Maine people that they see meaningful progress,” Berry said.

On Wednesday, committee members heard from the authors of an independent analysis of Berry’s proposal that was commissioned by the Maine Public Utilities Commission. The London Economics International analysis concluded that while electric rates could go up in the “near future” under a consumer-owned utility, total costs to ratepayers would likely be lower over the long-term as the utility uses tax-free financing to invest in its transmission system.

Another uncertainty is exactly how much it would cost the authority to purchase CMP’s and Emera’s assets, although the report suggested it could be up to two times their present value. Emera estimated last year the cost of buying the two companies at $7 billion to $9 billion.

Berry and other supporters said they believe the report also answered concerns about the constitutionality of the proposal.

“While there are a lot of unknowns, I did see a lot of potential for savings, possibly short-term if we do it correctly, but definitely long-term,” said Rep. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth. “I am committed not only for that reason, but for the reason we have significant environmental goals that I believe we need to accomplish for ourselves and for youth in our state.”

However, Republican committee members said there are simply too many cost unknowns for ratepayers for them to embrace the concept at this point.

“I would have a hard time putting the state through what is likely to be a long, long court battle to make this happen,” said Rep. Steven Foster, R-Dexter. “I think we would be much better served to continue our efforts to see that the PUC does their job.”

And then there’s the question of whether Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, would sign a bill if it were to pass the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

“The governor has not taken a position on the legislation, though she believes it must be carefully reviewed and cautiously considered,” Mills spokeswoman Lindsay Crete said. “The governor’s comments in her State of the State reflect her continued concern with CMP’s ongoing issues. The state allows electric utilities to hold a monopoly over the transmission and distribution of electricity and the governor expects, in return, that the people of Maine are provided adequate and reliable service at a reasonable cost.

“She is interested in looking at options to strengthen regulatory oversight or better ensure that the state or the PUC has the tools it needs to hold utilities accountable and answerable to Maine people.”

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