(The Center Square) – Maine is inching toward the creation of a consumer-owned utility.
A proposed plan would force the state's two investor-owned companies to turn over the keys to their operations.
The Legislature's Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology voted 9-2 on Tuesday to approve a bipartisan proposal that would create the Pine Tree Power Company. If approved, PTPC would take over the sprawling distribution and service areas of Central Maine Power Company and Versant Power.
Supporters say a nonprofit, consumer-owned utility would deliver clean, reliable electricity at a lower cost and with local control over the operations.
"As an independent nonprofit with an elected board and private sector operations, the Pine Tree Power Co. will allow us to control our own money and our own energy destiny — to advance fast and fairly toward our own clean energy and connectivity future," said Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, lead sponsor of the bill.
Another sponsor of the measure, Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, said large, investor-owned utilities tied to foreign governments don't serve Maine's energy consumers well.
"For too long our utilities have been governed by foreign governments and foreign boards that do not understand or care about the needs of Maine people," Bennett said. "This ownership model has been a disaster, leaving Maine with the 10th highest utility rates in the nation and dead last when it comes to reliability, with the most and longest outages in the country."
Lawmakers who opposed the measure said they were concerned about the implications of the state government taking over a privately owned utility.
"This is definitely a government takeover of what's currently a private enterprise," said Rep. Steven Foster, R-Dexter, one of two Republicans on the panel who voted against the bill.
The Maine Affordable Energy Coalition, a special interest group set up to oppose the proposal, said a government takeover means consumers would be on the hook for more than $13.5 billion for buying the two utilities, which supply a majority of the state's energy.
"If the state government takes control of Maine’s grid, we’ll be leaving decisions about management of power delivery up to a board of elected politicians," the group posted on its website. "Do you really want the same people in charge of fixing our roads responsible for restoring our power after a storm?"
But Rep. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, disagreed, telling committee members that the measure wasn't a government takeover but a "consumer takeover" in response to poor service.
"CMP and Versant are charging Maine households 58% more than Maine’s consumer-owned utilities and we can no longer afford their exploitative business model," Grohoski said.
Both companies issued statements expressing disappointment about the vote and warning that the plan could impact the cost and reliability of electricity in the state.
"A government power takeover will threaten our state's ability to do the work our citizens demand to keep pace with an evolving energy landscape," a Versant spokesman said.
Tuesday's vote by the energy committee puts the measure on a path to a full vote in the House and Senate.
Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, has expressed concerns about the plan following the committee's vote, foreshadowing a possible veto of the measure if it reaches her desk.
“I think the Legislature needs to understand what they’re voting on and answer these questions that I’ve posed,” Mills told Maine Public Radio earlier this week.