No other bill had received more attention over the previous two years from the Maine Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee. So when the panel was preparing for a July 24 vote on advancing a multibillion-dollar buyout plan to take over the assets of the state’s unpopular investor-owned electric companies and replace them with a consumer-owned power authority, there was a lot of anticipation in energy circles.

And for good reason. A string of controversial actions by Central Maine Power Co. and Iberdrola, its Spanish parent company, had fomented a ratepayer uprising, fueled by mismanaged billing, improper disconnection warnings, slow storm damage restorations and a deeply disliked Canadian power line project. The remedy, for some, was to take back local control of the power company. With local control would come the promise of lower costs, better responsiveness and stronger leadership on fighting climate change.

But just hours before the committee was set to decide whether to send the bill to the full Legislature, something happened. Its sponsor, Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, replaced the bill’s original wording with a proposal to conduct a largely unfunded study by a task force, to be presented in late 2021.

After some discussion, the measure was approved 8-1, supported by the panel’s Democratic majority. The Maine House Democrats immediately sent out a news release that Berry and an ally on the committee had been polishing until after midnight, in anticipation of such an outcome. It was headlined: “Energy Committee greenlights Maine power bill to begin transition away from for-profit utilities.”

But in reality, there was little cause for celebration. Berry had belatedly come to understand that there wasn’t enough support, even among fellow Democrats on the committee, to endorse his original bill. A major factor was tacit opposition from the party’s leader, Gov. Janet Mills.

And with the Legislature not likely to return until next year, even the modest study proposal appears dead. Either way, consumer-owned power would need a new bill and another public hearing in 2021 to move forward.

But advocates aren’t giving up. Far from it. They’ve recently submitted proposed language for a referendum question that would allow Maine voters to weigh in directly next year on replacing CMP and Versant Power, which serves five counties in central and northern Maine, with a consumer-owned power authority.

Berry also plans to draw up a new, modified bill. And he’s considering another measure, modeled after a proposal in Connecticut, to make utilities more accountable for poor responses to storm-related damage.

All those actions will test the degree of interest in getting rid of CMP and Versant, something that one key lawmaker says will take time and much more public buy-in.

“This is something that the next two or three Legislatures are going to have to work on,” said Sen. Mark Lawrence, D-Eliot. “It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight.”

IMPLIED DISAPPROVAL

Lawrence, who co-chairs the energy committee with Berry, said big energy users including municipalities, contractors, the state chamber of commerce and other influential business interests either opposed the original bill or didn’t take a position during a public hearing last year at which 98 people testified.

“I like the concept of a consumer-owned utility,” Lawrence said. “But I don’t think the committee had enough information to make a decision on whether this was a good financial risk for the state of Maine.”

Mills didn’t respond directly to the question of whether she opposed Berry’s bill. Instead, her media spokesperson pointed to testimony by the Governor’s Energy Office that was presented at a public hearing in May 2019. Her administration took no formal stand on the bill, but its lack of enthusiasm was apparent. It urged moving cautiously to gain a full understanding of the potential risks and opportunities of “such a major undertaking.” Utilities could be held accountable, it said, through the existing regulatory framework.

That’s in line with the understanding of Gordon Weil, a longtime promoter of consumer-owned utilities and Maine’s first energy director and Public Advocate, an independent official who represents consumers in state utility matters. He said Mills signaled her lack of support a couple of years ago, in a courtesy meeting with Berry that Weil attended.

“The reason why this whole thing got to where it is now is the governor, whom I admire,” said Weil, who helped draft the initial bill. “But on this, she clearly was not willing to support anything.”

On July 29, the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram sent Berry a request under the state’s public access law to release any correspondences he had prior to the committee work session with Mills, Lawrence and other key parties. The aim was to gain insight on how and why the bill had changed course so quickly and drastically.

Berry forwarded the request to the House Majority Office. The office identified 32 relevant emails, but after repeated prodding from the newspaper over more than five weeks, it released only 11 of them. It said the others were subject to an exemption for legislative working papers, a stance disputed by the newspaper’s attorney.

In a late-September interview, Berry was asked directly why he abruptly changed course. He acknowledged insufficient support from his colleagues. He said he was trying to achieve the best policy goals he could under the circumstances and move the issue forward.

Berry said he had no direct communications with Mills, who he said was rightly focused on “more pressing matters,” namely the coronavirus pandemic and the economy.

“I don’t think she’s taken a position in opposition,” he said. “I’d characterize the governor as open to it, considering it very seriously.”

Berry also took issue with the conclusion that the failure of the Legislature and governor to embrace consumer-owned power indicated a lack of broad public interest.

“I strongly disagree with that,” he said. “There’s overwhelming public support.”

A LONG HISTORY

Consumer-owned power isn’t a new concept in the United States. Roughly 900 not-for-profit cooperatives serve half the country. In Maine, small, consumer-owned power companies include Kennebunk Light & Power, Madison Electric Works and Houlton Water.

Consumer-owned power companies have appointed or elected boards and are professionally managed. They can be operated by a government entity, but that’s not the model Berry has in mind. Berry and consumer power advocates envisioned a body called the Maine Power Delivery Authority with a voter-elected board that would use low-interest revenue bonds to buy the infrastructure of CMP and Versant, including poles, wires and substations. Together, the two utilities are valued at roughly $4.5 billion.

With Weil’s assistance, Berry began promoting the concept in early 2019, bringing it to a contentious public hearing before the energy committee in May of that year.

But officials from the two power companies made it clear that they would fight what they consider an unconstitutional government takeover of their businesses, in court as well as in the Legislature. The issue heated up again last February, when the energy committee began scrutinizing a study overseen by the PUC on the pros and cons of consumer-owned power. Berry had been critical of the study for not highlighting the potential for greater and more immediate savings. He also slammed media coverage that, in his view, failed to convey the unequivocal nature of the savings.

But that quibble was eclipsed by events a month later, when the Legislature unexpectedly adjourned amid the pandemic shutdown. It wasn’t until late July, when committees took up pending business via remote meetings, that Berry’s bill regained visibility.

The July 24 meeting in which the energy committee would review and vote on the bill was a crucial moment for Berry, both from a parliamentary and personal point of view.

In an interview with the Press Herald/Sunday Telegram a few days before the work session, Berry expressed optimism that a majority of the 13-member committee would vote to endorse the bill and send it to the full Legislature. He then expected lawmakers to reconvene and take up the measure before year’s end.

“I have always believed this is urgent,” he said at the time.

POWER PLAYER

Berry, who is 51, lives with his wife and two sons in Bowdoinham. He espouses a rural lifestyle that includes gardening, raising poultry and cutting firewood on their woodlot. A former educator who taught in New York City, Berry currently is vice president of Kennebec River Biosciences, a Richmond-based biotech lab with a global business focused on aquatic animal health services.

Tenacity and urgency are defining characteristics of Berry. A six-term lawmaker who once served as majority leader and is running for re-election, Berry is a passionate voice for clean-energy issues. He also has become the body’s most persistent critic of CMP and its missteps. He rarely misses an opportunity to issue a news release denouncing the utility’s activities or promoting consumer-owned power, sending out 10 releases so far this year through the Maine House Democrats.

On his Facebook page and personal email, Berry also has begun promoting a notion that Maine’s news outlets are biased in their coverage of consumer-owned power. After Tropical Storm Isaias blew through in early August, he posted a challenge for Maine’s news media to find a single customer of a consumer-owned utility who lost power.

“This challenge is especially issued to news outlets accepting any of the millions per month in ad revenue being spent by CMP/Avangrid/Iberdrola and Hydro Quebec,” he wrote. “Please show us your independence.”

Berry’s personal crusade and populist message has won him a following. But the breadth of that support is in question, based on his failure to garner the support of enough fellow Democrats for his original bill in the days leading up to the work session vote.

GOING WITH PLAN B

Two days before the vote, Berry was still publicly expressing optimism that his bill would get a favorable response in committee and be taken up by the the full Legislature. But he knew from talking to Lawerence, the committee co-chair, and taking a head count, that perhaps only four of the 13 members were on board. Not one Republican would support it.

That realization sent him scrambling to draft several new versions of the bill that might win support from key stakeholders, including the Governor’s Energy Office, the Office of Public Advocate and other energy interests. He could not get traction. Finally, he arrived at what was called “Amendment B,” a watered-down compromise that replaced the original bill language with an unfunded study.

That’s the version the committee saw July 24, when it convened for its work session.

Starting at the end, Berry walked his colleagues through the bill, noting the role of the task force and lamenting the lack of funding available to do the work. This is a big issue, he said, which deserves a lot of study. Berry said he was convinced a consumer-owned utility is needed, but “I realize not everyone is there.”

Only two Republicans participated in the session. One of them, Rep. Jeff Hanley, R-Pittston, weighed in briefly to label the exercise a waste of time and money.

“I’m upset with this whole thing,” Hanley said. “We’ve got a brand new bill and no public hearing. We shouldn’t even be discussing this.”

The only Republican to cast a vote was Sen. Dana Dow, the Senate Republican leader. His was ought-not-to-pass.

“Why vote for something that’s as hurried as that?” Dow said in a recent interview. “The answer is, I don’t. It’s not sensible.”

When it was nearly time to vote, four of the bill’s advocates made statements in support.

Rep. Vicki Doudera, D-Camden, said she backs consumer-owned power because it keeps more money in Maine and advances the state’s climate goals.

“I do feel bittersweet,” she said about voting for the amendment, “and I know that many of my constituents will be a little disappointed, too. But at least we’ll be moving forward.”

In a recent interview, Doudera said she was surprised and frustrated that the bill had changed so quickly. But she said she has come to appreciate the legislative process, and the desire for more time and study.

A BAD EXAMPLE

One benefit of time and study may be added perspective.

The tropical storm in August that at its peak briefly cut power to roughly 118,000 CMP customers did far greater damage in New York and Connecticut, leaving some homes in the dark for up to nine days. Public outrage and charges that, once again, utilities were ill prepared have led politicians and regulators in those states to launch investigations.

One of the companies to come under fire in New York is PSEG Long Island, which operates the Long Island Power Authority’s grid. The authority is consumer-owned, with a board of trustees partially appointed by the governor. It was forged in the 1980s and 1990s from the area’s longtime power company, which was saddled with high debt linked to a nuclear power plant.

But today, Long Island customers pay some of the highest rates in the Northeast. And in August, Gov. Andrew Cuomo threatened to revoke PSEG’s contract to operate the island’s electric grid, highlighting how public ownership alone doesn’t assure good performance.

In Maine, Weil said PSEG Long Island shouldn’t be considered a model for the benefits of consumer-owned power. In his view,  PSEG, the New Jersey-based energy group contracted to manage the utility, has a “spotty record” in storm response.

“They picked the wrong operator,” Weil said.

ISSUE FAR FROM OVER

With politics, the pandemic and the economy dominating public interest now, consumer-owned power backers are pursuing strategies to keep their issue alive.

A nonprofit advocacy group called Maine Power For Maine People was formed in February. The group’s director is John Brautigam, a former legislator and assistant attorney general.

On Sept. 18, Brautigam and others submitted suggested language at the Secretary of State’s Office for a citizens’ referendum question. It reads:

“Do you want to create a not-for-profit, consumer-owned utility called the Maine Power Delivery Authority, to replace the two investor-owned utilities known as Central Maine Power and Versant and to be governed by a board that is elected by Maine voters and required to focus on lower rates, better reliability and Maine’s climate goals?”

The secretary of state is reviewing the language. If approved in its current form, advocates could begin circulating the petition and collecting signatures.

Berry said he plans to reintroduce an updated, improved version of his bill next year. At the same time, he has taken an interest in an initiative by lawmakers in Connecticut called the Take Back the Grid Act. Among other things, it would require utilities to compensate customers for damages during prolonged power outages, such as spoiled food or medicine.

Last month, Berry sent details of the act to his Maine colleagues on the energy committee.

“If you’d like to join me in co-sponsoring similar legislation in Maine,” he wrote in an email, “let me know.”

On Oct. 7, Connecticut’s governor signed a utility reform law that, among other things, will require electric companies to credit customers $25 a day for extended outages.

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