This coming November, Mainers will have, literally, an electrifying choice to make when they go to the polls: Do they support the creation of a publicly owned utility, Pine Tree Power, to replace investor-owned utilities such as Central Maine Power and Versant?

Opinion pages and airwaves throughout the state are undoubtedly being flooded with messages on both sides of the issue. Both sides are making arguments about climate change.

The “yes” campaign (Pine Tree Power supporters) argues that investor-owned utilities’ profit motive impedes their focus on reducing carbon emissions. The “no” campaign argues that Maine’s investor-owned utilities are forward-looking utilities with relatively low carbon footprints and near-term plans to go even greener (after all, CMP is building a major transmission line to bring clean hydro in from Canada).

I am very pleased that climate change is getting so much press. I see it as the single most important political challenge of our time, and I know many Mainers do, too. But the truth is that Question 3 (the Pine Tree Power question) isn’t about climate change, much as each side may like you to think it is.

While investor-owned utilities nationally have often been climate policy obstructers, their orientations do vary from one company to another, and from one state to another, and it is true that Maine’s investor-owned utilities are greener than most.

With its fully restructured electric sector, Maine’s investor-owned utilities do not own fossil-fueled generation, and there isn’t much of it in New England anyway. Maine’s utilities are “poles and wires companies” that earn profits from building transmission lines (something we need a lot more of, by the way, to decarbonize the grid) as well as from building other capital infrastructure, not from generating electricity themselves. Moreover, public power is not necessarily cleaner power, as the case of the Tennessee Valley Authority shows (although I have no doubt that Pine Tree Power would be more clean-powered than the TVA; it’s a low bar). The truth is, thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act, going green is a lot more profitable, regardless of who owns the poles and wires.


Instead, what Question 3 is really about is the role of private monopolies in our society – immensely politically powerful monopolies, by the way. It is fundamentally about whether we want an essential public service – electricity – to be provided by privately owned monopoly corporations, motivated by profitability for their shareholders, or whether we want it to be provided by a more consumer-focused, publicly owned enterprise.

I am inclined toward the latter, but I have argued elsewhere that this should really be dealt with at the federal level, not on a state-by-state basis. That said, the federal government has failed to offer a corrective, and so now Mainers have a chance to weigh in. The details matter greatly, and publicly run enterprises are not always a panacea, so read the language of the ballot question carefully and ask the tough questions. Do all you can to get unbiased answers.

Ultimately, this is about whether you think government or private monopolies should hold the keys to the clean electricity future. Make no mistake, the future electric grid is one that is less reliant on fossil fuels and hopefully one day not reliant on them at all. But there is a lot of money to be made on the road to net zero, and the question is, how much of that money goes to private investors and how much of it stays with consumers.


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