I was asked my opinion on the efforts in Maine to break away from the current investor-owned utilities and form a publicly owned utility. My answer was, “I don’t know if it’s right for Maine, but I will share Winter Park’s story. It’s a great story.”

There are not a lot of similarities between Maine and the city of Winter Park, Florida. The size, climate, environment, governance structure and accents are quite different. However, the pros and cons of community-owned power are likely the same. To me, the most important question is, “Why do this?” What community benefit is not currently being provided by the investor-owned utility? Communities all over the county have asked themselves that question, and the answers vary. The most common reasons I have seen are rates, reliability, aesthetics, climate change, accountability, or to simply control how and where the profits are invested.

For Winter Park, it was mostly about reliability and aesthetics. Our city is very proud and protective of its tree canopy. Trees and power lines are not a good combination for reliable power. The investor-owned utility would excessively trim the trees to improve reliability, and our residents would complain about the butchering. As a result, the reliability in Winter Park was some of the worst in Florida. We tried to work with the investor-owned utility to put the power lines underground, but they would do so only if the city paid for it. Not an unreasonable response, since they answered to their shareholders and the Public Service Commission, not the residents of Winter Park. There were other factors, such as the investor-owned utility charging Winter Park some of the highest rates in the state and wanting us to sign a new 30-year franchise with no right to purchase and no out clause for poor performance. However, reliability and aesthetics were the main reasons.

After a protracted legal battle over our right to purchase, and after two feasibility studies and arbitration to set the purchase price, the matter was set for a voter referendum. According to their finance filings, the investor-owned utility spent $523,750 on the campaign against the purchase. As you would expect, and have probably already seen in your state, the campaign was filled with strong predictions of failure and potential bankruptcy. The investor-owned utility claimed rates would go up, reliability would go down, there would be slow response to outages, no one would come help after a hurricane, and that we didn’t know anything about an electric utility. The proponents of the purchase simply promised to take the profits that were going to taxes, high corporate salaries and out-of-state shareholders and reinvest them back into to the community.

The referendum was held, and 69% voted in favor of the purchase. Since the purchase, our rates have consistently been lower than those of the predecessor investor-owned utility. Currently, our rates are 35.6% lower than average investor-owned utility rates in our state. We have run over 70% of the system underground and expect to be 100% complete by 2030. Our reliability numbers are 75% better than when we took over, and the need for drastic tree trimming has been eliminated. Our hurricane response has been some of the best in the region. We recently received an upgrade to AA- from Fitch Ratings. Overall, a huge success.

More recently, we have begun investing in renewable energy. We have committed to 20 megawatts of large-scale solar that will come online in the next three years, built several small solar projects on city facilities and recently adopted a Sustainability Action Plan with a goal of 80% renewable energy by 2042.

Winter Park’s success does not guarantee it is right for Maine. My message is simply this: Don’t let the investor-owned utility scare tactics be a deciding factor. Look at your “Why?” and decide if it is worth it. Best wishes!

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