It’s clear by now that the bill proposing the “Pine Tree Power Co.” will not become law in this legislative session. An initial favorable Senate vote was reversed after two senators changed their minds.

Nonetheless, supporters are already gearing up for a 2022 referendum to “let Mainers decide” whether to give Central Maine Power (and Versant) the boot, once and for all.

One can hardly wait.

If you liked all the misleading ads and record spending we saw last year about the CMP line to Quebec – before the Maine Supreme Court vetoed the ballot question – you’ll probably be even happier about a referendum war over a new public utility, whose assets would be forcibly removed from CMP and Versant.

Whether a referendum is the best way to deal with utility companies that, in Maine, dwarf all others – CMP alone has annual revenues of $800 million, and 1,400 employees – might give us pause.

On the one hand, ratepayers have every reason to feel aggrieved. CMP has been tone-deaf to customers, especially since Spanish utility giant Iberdrola purchased it, and its responses to a malfunctioning computer billing system, and a severe 2017 windstorm, were nothing short of disastrous.


Yet a takeover on this scale hasn’t happened since the New Deal, and there are many questions about whether the public ownership / private operator replacement in the Pine Tree bill would necessarily be an improvement.

Supporters tout public buyouts of other utilities as proving it’s a good idea. The facts argue otherwise.

The only example of a large, non-municipal electric utility being converted is the former Long Island Lighting Co. (Lilco), which became the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) through agreement at the New York Legislature, in 1998. Lilco was effectively bankrupt due to investments in the never-completed Shoreham nuclear power station.

The Seabrook plant was the cause of a similar bankruptcy by New Hampshire Public Service, although it was taken over by a Connecticut private utility, rather than a public agency.

Pine Tree supporters say the Long Island takeover proves a public utility can work, although there’s a big difference between rescuing an insolvent company and taking over one that, whatever its problems, is financially intact.

And the LIPA experience shows much can go wrong. It, too, was plagued by high rates and poor service, to the point where, after Hurricane Sandy in 2011, the Legislature intervened again to remove existing managers and replace them with a private, contracted operator – the Pine Tree model.


Suffice it to say the forced takeover of CMP would produce a blizzard of lawsuits and years of conflict – and, in the end, would it be worth it?

Now’s the time to look for alternatives to this potential train wreck, and we can find a clue in an old maxim of government: It’s much easier, and usually more effective, to modify and strengthen existing agencies than build one from scratch.

In Maine’s case, that would be the Public Utilities Commission – a Progressive-era reform that’s been in operation for a century – and the Efficiency Maine Trust, the non-profit partnership that runs conservation and renewable energy programs on behalf of the state.

The PUC has, unfortunately, remained mostly a green-eyeshade reviewer of RFPs from a tidal wave of new solar and wind energy aspirants. Rather than directing us to the renewable energy future we desperately need – electricity production may need to double, or triple to combat global warming – the PUC is mostly crunching numbers.

There’s no reason, however, the agency can’t be reoriented, but to do its new job it should be expanded from three to five commissioners, with a corresponding increase in staff. The Public Advocate’s office, representing consumers, also needs beefing up.

As for Efficiency Maine, it could, after a governance overhaul, become an owner of public assets needed to make the mammoth energy conversion. The new Maine Connectivity Authority, overseeing broadband expansion, could provide some lessons.


Ironically, Hydro Quebec, the bete noire of many groups also supporting Pine Tree Power, is a fully public utility, owned by the province and a point of pride for many Quebecois. It is, however, “foreign.”

Building and owning converter stations, selected generating facilities, and, eventually, electric grids might be possible. State guidance will be essential, especially because it will need to dovetail with the New England and national electric grids on which we also depend.

Legislation to accomplish these aims could be considered in the 2022 session. It seems a lot less risky that betting everything on a referendum vote concerning matters, frankly, most of us are ill-equipped to judge.

Informed, robust regulation, and a capable public power authority, could provide the right answers.

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, commentator, reporter and author since 1984. His new book is “First Franco: Albert Beliveau in Law, Politics and Love.” Visit the website, or e-mail: 

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