When I first moved to this dirt road in the mountains of western Maine about 12 years ago, we would lose power two or three times every winter during severe weather, each outage lasting a couple of hours. I had been living between two hospitals in a city, with power that almost never failed: I hadn’t realized there were still many places in Maine that don’t have reliable electricity. I quickly found out just how wrong I was.
But never in my life would I have imagined that 12 years later, on this same dirt road, I’d be dealing with double the amount of outages, typically lasting twice as long, as when I first moved in. I’m not joking when I tell you that I’ve lost power six times in the past 2.5 months of the mildest spring I’ve seen in years. My kids’ school has had to cancel twice in the past two months because of outages.
It’s not just a local problem. According to Federal data, Maine is one of the four worst states for number and duration of outages per customer. The fact is, CMP and Versant have had decades to deliver reliable power and haven’t done it. Why? Because they’re focused on profits, not people. They under-invest in the distribution grid so they can move more of our money into their pockets.
Fortunately, there’s an alternative. Department of Energy data show that both nationally and in Maine, consumer-owned utilities provide significantly more reliable power than investor-owned utilities. Maine’s own small consumer-owned utilities have fewer and shorter interruptions than CMP and Versant. Consumer-owned utilities also charge cheaper rates than investor-owned utilities, nationally and in Maine. For instance, I pay more for my electricity than my neighbors, who are served by the consumer-owned utility Madison Electric Works. I pay more and get less.
A consumer-owned utility, Pine Tree Power, has been proposed for Maine. Pine Tree Power would use no tax dollars and would be controlled by a board we elect. The choice of whether to switch to Pine Tree Power is likely to come before us as a referendum this year or next.
We have given CMP and Versant long enough to try and fix their issues, but they haven’t, because they are not in the business of making us, their customers, happy. They are in the business of turning a profit for their shareholders—which means extracting as much money as possible from us and sending it to the governments of Calgary, Canada (which owns Versant) and of Qatar and Norway (the two largest investors in CMP’s owner, Spanish holding company Iberdrola).
Because there is room for only one grid, it is a natural monopoly and electric utility companies own and operate it only by Maine’s permission—but CMP and Versant have proven that foreign-owned, for-profit businesses can’t handle that responsibility. Do you know of any other business that could charge you more every year for less reliable service and continue to be successful? I can tell you, given the option to use another company with better reliability and lower rates I would say “Sign me up!” And I know others would as well. But I can’t, because there is no choice. There is no competition in running a grid, and without competition, profit doesn’t motivate a company to provide superior product—it only motivates it to suck more blood.
So please remember, our current setup is not a free market to begin with. CMP and Versant have been taking advantage of Maine’s captive ratepayers for far too long, and it’s time we replace them with a non-profit, non-governmental, consumer-owned company of our own. It’s time for an electric delivery provider that is local, reliable, low-cost, and democratically controlled by Maine voters. And that’s what Pine Tree Power would give us.