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Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

Mainers reject historic bid to make for-profit utilities publicly owned

The ballot initiative aimed to bolster Maine’s energy transition, grid reliability and affordability. Utilities fought the effort with a torrent of cash.
By Julian Spector

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A large electrical substation next to a river
Central Maine Power's Cape Substation in South Portland (Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald/Getty Images)

Maine voters had a chance Tuesday to fundamentally reshape their energy system by taking over their two for-profit electric utilities and creating a new community-owned energy company. But more than two-thirds of voters said no to that proposal in the off-year election.

The Associated Press called the loss at 9:45 p.m. local time. As of Wednesday morning, the tally was 69% against the initiative and 31% in favor, with 93% of votes counted, per The Portland Press Herald.

Pine Tree Power, the proposed public-owned nonprofit utility intended to supercharge the clean energy transition and save money for customers, faced a steep uphill battle from the beginning. It had to overcome the inertia that favors the status quo — even a deeply unpopular status quo, in which more than 100,000 Mainers have been erroneously billed by their utilities. Transforming the state’s grid ownership also required voters to accept a host of unknowns, like how much debt the state would take on, how long it would take to adjudicate the handover, and how soon Mainers would really see the savings they were promised.

Compounding those difficulties, the incumbents filled the airwaves with ads, tremendously outspending the Pine Tree Power initiative.

The real story of the night is that we were outspent 301, and still, we had over 100,000 people voting for change from this model that is not working for people, because it’s not meant to,” said Lucy Hochschartner, deputy manager for the Pine Tree Power campaign, in a Wednesday morning interview. The story is that they had to spend $40 million against their own customers to just continue doing business.”

The vote ensures that Maine’s decidedly unpopular utilities Central Maine Power and Versant, both subsidiaries of foreign energy companies, will continue operating Maine’s electric grid for the foreseeable future. Pine Tree Power remains just an idea, though the campaign will connect with supporters and volunteers to make our next-step decisions together,” Hochschartner noted. The organization has no immediate plans to rerun the ballot initiative.

But the decisive loss raises questions, in Maine and around the country, about how far the public is willing to go to accelerate grid decarbonization and improve customer satisfaction.

Advocates for Pine Tree Power argued that the for-profit utility status quo was so broken as to warrant a fundamental shift. Voters blocked the specific alternative the advocates offered, but that doesn’t mean they’re happy with the status quo.

It’s possible that the spotlight pointed at the utilities by this high-profile ballot initiative will push them to make progress on customer service and connecting clean energy to the grid. Central Maine Power projected eagerness to change in a statement circulated to local press.

With this referendum behind us, we are turning the page,” the state’s largest utility declared, after the votes were in. As we look forward, we must continue to modernize our grid to support Maine’s climate change goals, connect new renewable resources, and electrify our communities.”

So far, those are just words. But with the wholesale takeover of private utilities off the table, climate advocates can pursue more stringent action through existing regulatory structures. The state’s legislature recently adopted performance-based regulation,” a policy that ties utility profits to meeting certain metrics determined to be in the public good. State Representative Gerry Runte previously made the case to Canary Media that the state should adopt stronger utility regulations rather than gambling on a whole new ownership structure.

Beyond Maine, the vote offers lessons for climate advocates trying to build public support for a transition to consumer-led utilities. At first glance, the clear defeat must be disheartening. On the other hand, Maine attempted something nobody had tried before, and the first go-round attracted nearly one-third of the electorate.

​If I were an investor-owned utility, I would be scared of that vote,” Hochschartner said.

That CMP and Versant felt the need to spend nearly $40 million fighting back indicates some degree of existential concern on their part. Given the asymmetrical funding, the Pine Tree Power campaign focused on grassroots organizing, knocking as many doors as they could with the limited resources they had.

When we could talk to people, we moved them: Consumer-owned utilities just make sense,” Hochschartner told Canary Media. If we were able to talk to every voter, we would have won in a landslide.”

At this point, there’s no way to know how spending more on grassroots organizing might have changed the vote count. But organizers in Maine and elsewhere can take the data into consideration when planning future campaigns. If voters remain unsatisfied with their utilities or the pace of climate action, Maine’s ballot-box showdown could still prove to be the opening salvo in a broader struggle to convert for-profit utilities into public-oriented climate solutions providers.

Julian Spector is a senior reporter at Canary Media. He reports on batteries, long-duration energy storage, low-carbon hydrogen and clean energy breakthroughs around the world.