Maine’s idea: regulation, not buyout, a better answer for CMP
It is now clear that the bill proposing the “Pine Tree Power Co.” will not become law during this legislative session. A first favorable Senate vote was overturned after two senators changed their minds.
Nonetheless, supporters are already gearing up for a referendum in 2022 to “let the Mainers decide” whether to give Central Maine Power (and Versant) the boot once and for all.
We can hardly wait.
If you liked all the deceptive ads and record spending we saw last year about the CMP line to Quebec – before the Supreme Court of Maine vetoed the ballot issue – you will probably be even happier with a referendum war on a new public service, the assets of which would be forcibly withdrawn from the CMP and the Versant.
The question of whether a referendum is the best way to deal with the utilities in Maine that outperform all others – CMP alone has annual revenues of $ 800 million and 1,400 employees – could usher in. make you think.
On the one hand, taxpayers have every reason to feel aggrieved. CMP has remained deaf to customers, especially since Spanish utility giant Iberdrola bought it, and its responses to a faulty IT billing system and severe windstorm in 2017 have been nothing short of disastrous.
Yet a takeover of this magnitude has not taken place since the New Deal, and there are many questions about whether the replacement of public / private operator ownership in the Pine Tree Bill would necessarily be an improvement. .
Supporters are touting public takeovers of other utilities as proving it’s a good idea. The facts prove the contrary.
The only example of a large non-municipal electricity company being converted is the former Long Island Lighting Co. (Lilco), which became the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) under an agreement with the New York Legislature in 1998. Lilco was in fact bankrupt due to investments in the Shoreham nuclear power plant, which was never completed.
The Seabrook plant was the cause of a similar bankruptcy by the New Hampshire public service, although it was taken over by a private Connecticut utility rather than a public body.
Pine Tree supporters say the Long Island buyout proves that a utility can work, although there is a big difference between saving an insolvent business and taking over a business that, whatever its troubles, is financially intact. .
And the LIPA experience shows that a lot can go wrong. It too was plagued by high rates and poor service, to the point where, after Hurricane Sandy in 2011, the legislature again stepped in to remove existing managers and replace them with a private operator under contract – the model. Pine Tree.
Suffice it to say that the forced takeover of CMP would produce a lawsuit storm and years of conflict – and, in the end, would it be worth it?
Now is the time to look for alternatives to this potential train wreck, and we can find a clue in an old government maxim: It is much easier, and generally more effective, to modify and strengthen existing agencies than to create one from scratch.
In Maine’s case, that would be the Public Utilities Commission – a century-old progressive-era reform – and the Efficiency Maine Trust, the non-profit partnership that manages conservation programs and renewable energy on behalf of the state.
The PUC has, unfortunately, remained primarily a green-eyed reviewer of the tenders of a tidal wave of new aspiring solar and wind power. Rather than heading into the future of the renewables we desperately need – power generation may need to double or even triple to tackle global warming – the PUC is mainly calculating numbers.
There is no reason, however, that the agency cannot be reoriented, but in order to do its new job it would have to go from three to five commissioners, with a corresponding increase in staff. The Office of the Public Advocate, representing consumers, also needs to be strengthened.
As for Efficiency Maine, it could, after an overhaul of its governance, become the owner of the public assets necessary for the gigantic energy conversion. The new Maine Connectivity Authority, overseeing broadband expansion, could provide some lessons.
Ironically, Hydro-Québec, the black beast many groups also supporting Pine Tree Power, is a fully public utility, owned by the province and a point of pride for many Quebecers. He is, however, “foreign”.
Building and owning converter stations, selected generation facilities and possibly power grids may be possible. The direction of the State will be essential, in particular because it will have to be articulated with the electrical networks of New England and national on which we also depend.
Legislation to achieve these goals could be considered in the 2022 session. It seems a lot less risky than betting everything on a referendum vote on matters, frankly, most of us are ill-equipped to judge.
Enlightened and sound regulation and a competent public authority could provide the right answers.
Douglas Rooks has been an editor, commentator, journalist and author in Maine since 1984. His new book is “First Franco: Albert Beliveau in Law, Politics and Love”. Visit the website, https://douglasrooks.weebly.com/#/ or email:[email protected]
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