Pine Tree Power

by Kathleen Meil • September 26, 2023

When Maine voters head to the polls this November, we’ll consider referendum Question 3: Do you want to create a new power company governed by an elected board to acquire and operate existing for-profit electricity transmission and distribution facilities in Maine?

It’s a big question, and around the state – from legislative hearings and policy forums to farmers’ markets and coffee shops – Maine people are buzzing about what the outcome could mean for our economy, our environment, and our daily lives. 

If a majority of voters support the referendum, Maine will work to establish the Pine Tree Power Company, a nonprofit electric utility that would take over Central Maine Power Company and Versant Power. But what happens next? And what happens if voters reject the referendum? 

The Maine Conservation Voters / Maine Conservation Alliance team has spent countless hours wrestling with those questions. We’ve read materials and testimony from both Pine Tree Power supporters and critics, consulted with energy experts in Maine and beyond, and had discussions with partners and stakeholders on all sides of the issue. After careful analysis and discussion, we determined that we’ll have our work cut out for us to improve our utility infrastructure and meet our climate goals no matter what voters decide in November. Accordingly, our organizations have adopted a position of neutrality on the upcoming Pine Tree Power referendum — while maintaining an unwavering commitment to climate action, utility accountability, energy literacy, and a strong democracy. This position is neither an endorsement of the status quo nor a rejection of the Pine Tree Power proposal, but a recognition that utility ownership is not necessarily the critical factor in climate action, environmental impacts, reliability, or customer service.

Any utility – whether investor-owned or consumer-owned – will be subject to the utility accountability and grid planning requirements established by the Legislature last year to hold Maine’s electric utilities accountable to ratepayers and our climate future. Maine’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) must set and maintain strict guardrails that direct every utility to prioritize climate action, reliability, affordability, and customer service. And it will take consistent engagement and advocacy – at the Legislature and the PUC, in our communities and beyond – to make sure Maine’s clean energy transition is rapid, just, and resilient. 

The problem:

Climate, clean energy, and consumer advocates agree that Maine must hold large electric utilities to a higher standard.

  • Maine ratepayers experience the most frequent outages, along with the second-longest outages, and rate CMP lower in customer service than any other large- or mid-sized utility in the country. 
  • Clean energy projects face significant hurdles connecting to the grid. 
  • Maine needs significant investment to build a more resilient, renewable-friendly grid that can accommodate the demands of beneficial electrification.

Potential solutions:

Frustrated by the slow pace of progress in addressing these challenges, Maine people have coalesced around two potential paths to address these challenges and hold electric utilities accountable to ratepayers and our climate future:

  • New utility accountability and grid planning laws: In 2022, the Legislature passed and Gov. Mills signed into law strong utility accountability and grid planning legislation.  This law requires Maine’s large utilities to consult with stakeholders to develop plans that account for projected electric load, including under high electrification scenarios; outline infrastructure investments needed to support each scenario; and assess the environmental, equity, and environmental justice impacts of each scenario. The grid planning and modernization process adds guardrails to better regulate Maine’s electric utilities but does not address utility ownership. Because utilities have 18 months to develop these plans, it will take several years to see the impacts of this new law.
  • New utility structure: The Pine Tree Power initiative posits that regulatory guardrails can’t go far enough in holding Maine’s utilities accountable, and proposes to create a new nonprofit, consumer-owned utility. The company would be governed by a board of elected representatives and appointed experts, which would have four years to adopt by-laws, retain expert professional staff and consultants, and develop a transition plan and business plan. Because the transition period would be lengthy and will likely be characterized by uncertainty and litigation, it’s unclear how long it would take to see the impacts of this new structure.

Our analysis: 

We carefully studied the potential impacts that the transition to a consumer-owned utility might have on Maine people and our environment, with a particular focus on whether that transition would significantly improve:

  • Maine’s capacity to meet our energy needs and goals, including reduction of carbon emissions and the transition to renewables;
  • Implementation of environmental and conservation initiatives; 
  • Reasonable rates, reliability, and customer service; and 
  • Meaningful engagement with and accountability to Maine people to achieve these goals.

Maine’s Public Advocate recently released an overview of issues and questions related to the Pine Tree Power proposal, including these factors, and concluded that it is not possible to predict the effects of the Pine Tree Power proposal with certainty.

Moving forward:

We came to the conclusion that while utility leadership clearly matters when it comes to climate action and environmental impacts, utility ownership structure is not the critical factor. At the same time, we do not endorse the status quo.  Whether Maine voters determine to stick with our existing electric utilities or establish a new utility empowered to take over CMP and Versant, Maine Conservation Voters and Maine Conservation Alliance will continue to leverage our expertise and leadership to ensure that Maine’s clean energy transition is an equitable one and enables greater civic participation, more efficient government practices, more responsive public engagement, and more transparent decision-making.  We are laser focused on utility accountability and grid planning that holds Maine’s existing electric utilities accountable to ratepayers and our climate future, and the stakeholder engagement required by that legislation is now underway at the Public Utilities Commission.