Supporters of Pine Tree Power demonstrate at the University of Southern Maine on Thursday, where the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce was hosting an event taking aim at Pine Tree Power. PTP and CMP are locked in a battle over a November referendum question that would create a publicly owned utility.  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

A Portland business group on Thursday hosted a 45-minute takedown of a public power proposal on the Nov. 7 state ballot as two dozen activists earlier demonstrated their support for a publicly owned utility.

The presentation by Jim Cohen, a partner at Verrill law firm who focuses on utilities and energy, was hosted by the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce at its monthly Eggs & Issues forum. The Chamber opposes the ballot measure, which calls for the takeover of Maine’s two investor-owned utilities and installation of a publicly controlled utility called Pine Tree Power. Supporters say it would end the monopoly status of Central Maine Power and Versant Power and clear the way for a new entity to offer power at less cost, and that would be more responsive to consumers.

Supporters of the Pine Tree Power proposal earlier in the day gathered outside the University of Southern Maine’s Hannaford Hall, where Cohen spoke, to criticize the Chamber for only presenting one side of the highly controversial issue. The Chamber did not immediately respond to a call seeking an explanation of the format.

Mark Read, a Portland landlord who joined the protest, said CMP and Versant are “not getting a lot of competition and don’t want competition here.” He said electricity rates in Maine are excessive and make it more difficult to offer reasonable rents.

Supporters of Pine Tree Power demonstrate at University of Southern Maine’s Hannaford Hall on Thursday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

William Thieme, an IT business owner among the demonstrators, said electricity in Maine is unreliable, forcing him to reschedule work that costs revenue. More competition would likely improve service, he said. The ballot measure calls on Pine Tree Power to conduct a competitive solicitation to contract with one or more private companies to operate the utility.

“Right now it’s CMP or the highway,” Thieme said.


The Chamber forum, which was sponsored by CMP, Martin’s Point Health Care and the Bernstein Shur law firm, was one of many scheduled between now and Nov. 7, when voters will weigh in on Question 3. If approved, the measure would call for the public takeover of CMP and Versant, and establish a board that would oversee a third-party operator to take care of the day-to-day management of the state’s power distribution system. The two companies are responsible for delivering electricity to Maine homes, but not generating it, and have been spending millions to defeat the measure.

An analysis from the state’s public advocate released last week said there were too many unknowns to predict what might happen if the measure passes. It said Pine Tree Power supporters’ assertions that rates would go down and reliability would improve if they won couldn’t be substantiated. It also raised the specter of politics influencing management of the state grid. The referendum would create a seven-member elected board and those members, in turn, would appoint six other members.

Supporters of Pine Tree Power demonstrate at University of Southern Maine on Thursday, where the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce hosted a presentation that criticized Question 3 on November’s ballot, which would create a publicly owned utility if it passes. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The report did, however, predict there would be lawsuits that could drag on for up to 10 years if Question 3 passes, especially over the value of the two companies and a fair purchase price.

Speaking to an audience of more than 100, Cohen said the precise cost of buying the two utilities is unknown. One 2021 analysis says it would be $13.5 billion and others say it would be less.

“We’ll be voting this November when we won’t know the price,” he said. “We’re going to buy two companies that we don’t know how much they’re worth.”

He also noted that falling trees cause 87% of outages by pulling down wires, a situation that won’t change no matter who oversees the grid.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s CMP or Versant or Pine Tree Power or anyone else. It will still be trees. It will still ice over in the winter. It will still fall on lines,” he said. “And to promise that we can somehow magically stop ice from falling on trees and trees falling on wires is simply unrealistic.”

Cohen defended the current regulated system that requires the utilities to seek authorization from the Maine Public Utilities Commission to raise rates. “They can’t just wake up in the morning and say I’m going to raise your rates.

“We don’t need Question 3 to give us more tools. We have those tools today.”

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