It was nowhere to be seen on Tuesday’s ballot, but Pine Tree Power got a big jolt of energy last week.

The proposed consumer-owned electric utility, which would replace Central Maine Power Co. and Versant Power as the primary provider of electricity throughout most of Maine, still has a long, long way to go before it becomes a reality. The earliest the citizen initiative could go to voters – assuming the proponents’ current petition drive hits a looming January deadline for gathering 63,067 Maine voters’ signatures – would be Nov. 8, 2022.

But make no mistake about it – when Mainers overwhelmingly turned thumbs down on CMP’s proposed New England Clean Energy Connect transmission corridor on Election Day, they weren’t just focused on the 145 miles of high-voltage line running from the Quebec border down through the forests of western Maine.

They were voicing their disdain, loudly, for CMP, its U.S. parent company, Avangrid, and their parent conglomerate, Spain-based energy giant Iberdrola.

Which means that even as one hot-button campaign ends, another one begins.

Asked during an interview Friday how the signature gathering by Our Power, the ballot question committee backing Pine Tree Power, went outside the polls on Tuesday, Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, declined to talk actual numbers.

“But it was overwhelming,” said Berry, who has shepherded the consumer-owned utility effort through the Legislature for the past three years. “It far exceeded expectations.”

No surprise there. With just under 60 percent of voters having just rejected the NECEC corridor, signing another anti-CMP petition on the way out to the car was for many icing on the cake. During the 12 hours he spent gathering signatures outside polling places in Bowdoin and Bowdoinham, Berry said, 747 voters signed the Pine Tree Power petition. “That’s a rate of over one per minute,” he noted.

But will that momentum last? At a time when public opinion can swing wildly from one news cycle to the next, will the fervor that saw the NECEC vote go down by a 59-to-41 percent ratio still run high a full year from now?

Willy Ritch, who runs the CMP-backed ballot question committee Maine Affordable Energy, said in an interview that a vote against NECEC does not necessarily translate into a vote for a consumer-owned utility.

“I think that will fade,” Ritch said, referring to the anger and frustration that dogged CMP and its allies leading up to Tuesday’s shellacking of the NECEC corridor. In the end, he said, any referendum on a consumer-owned utility will hinge not so much on CMP’s public relations woes in recent years but rather on the cost of buying out CMP in central and southern Maine and Versant and northern and eastern Maine. CMP has projected that cost at $13 billion, although the other estimates put it at less than half of that.

Still, the final price for a consumer takeover aside, two factors all but guarantee that the aftershocks from Question 1 won’t subside any time soon.

First, before, during and after the vote, construction crews continued to work feverishly on the NECEC corridor – company officials insist that they’re well within their legal right to do so.

But with hundreds of thousands of voters assuming that they were slamming the brakes on NECEC last week, watching the work proceed apace now smacks of the same kind of arrogance – see: billing fiascoes, outages and near-constant customer complaints – that torched CMP’s once-pristine reputation in the first place.

“We don’t believe the (Maine Department of Environmental Protection) can just ignore what the people of Maine enacted and let CMP cause more harm to the corridor,” Pete Didisheim, advocacy director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, told the Press Herald the day after the vote.

Others apparently agree. Following widespread demands that NECEC stop moving forward, Maine Environmental Protection Commissioner Melanie Loyzim announced Friday that a hearing will be held on Nov. 22 to determine whether work on the project should be halted in view of the “change in circumstances” brought on by Tuesday’s vote.

That makes sense. While NECEC may well go to court over any state license revocation, the longer Mainers keep seeing new photos of trees being cleared and poles going up, the more the anger that peaked on Election Day will intensify, not diminish.

Which brings us to the second source of continued controversy – Maine’s court system.

Less than 24 hours after the polls closed Tuesday evening, Avangrid was in Maine Superior Court in Portland claiming that the anti-corridor referendum was both unconstitutional and in violation of state and federal laws.

It will take months, at least, to settle those challenges once and for all. But with each step through the legal process – and the headlines those hearings, rulings and appeals will inevitably spawn – Mainers will be reminded again … and again … and again that CMP’s overseers are still hard at working trying to subvert the will of the voters. What a contrast to 25 years ago, when CMP enjoyed widespread trust and goodwill under the steady hand of David Flanagan, who died last month and was memorialized by hundreds on Saturday.

In short, as long as the multinational Iberdrola chooses to keep fighting this battle, Mainers will stay mad. And if in 12 short months they’re presented with another chance to vent that anger, I wouldn’t bet the farm on maintaining the status quo.

It could be worse for CMP. Had Gov. Janet Mills not vetoed L.D. 1708 – “An Act To Create the Pine Tree Power Company, a Nonprofit Utility, To Deliver Lower Rates, Reliability and Local Control for Maine Energy Independence” – back in June, it would have been on the ballot as required last week alongside the NECEC corridor referendum. It doesn’t take a political scientist to surmise how that would have turned out.

Now, Mills finds herself in an unenviable tug-of-war between a policy decision– she felt the Pine Tree Power proposal moved Maine too far too quickly – and the gnawing political reality that, by opposing both the NECEC referendum and the consumer-owned utility, she heads into an election year swimming against a strong current of voter antipathy.

Said Mills on Wednesday, “With (Tuesday’s) vote and with litigation expected on both sides of the question, I hope that the courts, as an independent arbiter, will act in a timely manner to provide clarity and resolve the matter so that we can put this controversy to rest, one way or the other.”

And, with nary a pause, move on to the next one.

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