In a recent column, Douglas Rooks lamented the poor performance of Central Maine Power (“The Maine Idea: Regulation, not takeover, a better answer for CMP,” June 24). He concluded we can make CMP a good working partner through better regulation. History and the current situation say otherwise.

It is up to us to examine the historical failures of CMP over time, consider our future electricity needs, and visualize the characteristics of the utility required to satisfy them. Better regulation is necessary, but this examination indicates it will not be enough. Meeting the climate challenge requires dramatic structural change, embodied in the proposal to create Pine Tree Power, a consumer-owned utility. We need to wrestle control of our destiny away from distant investors with a primary goal of taking money out of Maine.

Founded in 1899, initially CMP was owned by Maine shareholders and served customers well. Starting in the 1960s, the deteriorating performance of investor-owned utilities (IOUs), including CMP, has led to repeated legislative reform and referendums.

The mistake of granting monopoly franchises to for-profit enterprises for both generation and delivery of electricity became apparent, and the IOUs were directed to open their delivery systems to competitive energy suppliers. Resisting, the IOUs found a way to discriminate against outside suppliers. The Maine legislature responded by requiring CMP and other IOUs to divest their generating facilities. This worked. Energy prices (not delivery charges) have been flat for twenty years.

At roughly the same time the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission took control of transmission lines away from the IOUs, by creating ISO-New England to manage the regional transmission system. More recently the folly of expecting IOUs to encourage energy efficiency was corrected by creating the Efficiency Maine Trust. This reform has been successful. Then, when it became obvious the IOUs were unwilling to consider non-wire alternatives to poles and wires, this responsibility was transferred to the Office of the Public Advocate.

These reforms mark a repeating pattern of unacceptable performance of investor-owned utilities, recognition that regulation could not fix the problem, followed by structural reform legislation to take functions away from the IOUs.

Today, the poor performance of CMP and Versant Power are well documented by worst-in-the nation service ratings and outages; continuous resistance to supporting renewable energy initiatives; and failure to plan and build a stronger, reliable grid for our expanding electricity demand.

It is crystal clear: while more robust regulation is necessary, we cannot regulate putting Maine customers and articulated clean energy objectives ahead of IOU shareholder financial interests. This is literally against the law. We have an intractable problem that can be solved by the ultimate structural reform – abandoning the IOU model in favor of the consumer-owned utility model, as embodied in the proposal for Pine Tree Power Company. Regulation cannot change the DNA of the obsolete IOU model.

It is fundamental structural misalignment when an IOU has a primary purpose of enriching its shareholders. Conversely, a COU has a primary purpose of serving its customers. This is reflected in the stated purposes in the enabling legislation of Pine Tree Power, including:

  • Deliver safe, affordable, reliable electricity to its customer-owners;
  • Provide excellent customer service;
  • Provide an open, supportive platform for renewable generation, storage, efficiency and other beneficial electrification technologies;
  • Enhance Maine internet connectivity through affordable access to utility poles and other infrastructure;
  • Provide transparent and accountable governance; and
  • Support and sustain economic growth within Maine.

Note enriching shareholders in distant places is not on this list. These purposes are aligned with our needs. With a COU we also get access to tax-exempt bonding, which leading economists say will save Maine ratepayers $5billion-$10 billion over the next 30 years.

Pine Tree Power would be brought into existence and operated under the direction of an independent Board of Directors, elected by Maine people. CMP and Versant would be paid fair market value for their assets. Top-quality private professional management would be installed to run the company. This reveals a structure that will be run professionally for the benefit of Maine people – a benign consumer takeover!

Wrestling control of the grid away from CMP and Versant will be difficult. They have pledged to fight. This is a reason for Maine people to embrace a COU. The CMP response shows how little interest it now has in us, and how captive they are to the dictates of foreign shareholders.

No structure is a panacea. The history and current operation of the IOUs reflects a failed model. To paraphrase an old saw, “If it’s broke, fix it.” Our electricity needs are so compelling it seems imperative to align the mission of our utility with the needs of Maine people, and put local people in control. We are far more likely to succeed. In the end, we will know who to hold accountable, and have access to them.

Steve Weems is a retired businessman and volunteer executive director of the Solar Energy Association of Maine. He lives in Brunswick.

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