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A historic referendum asked voters in Maine if they wanted to replace their privately owned utilities with a publicly owned one.

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Voters in Maine overwhelmingly rejected scuttling the state’s for-profit utilities in favor of a public power company that would have been governed by a board of elected and appointed officials.

The referendum was the nation’s first effort to replace all privately owned utilities with a statewide nonprofit option. The proposed new company, Pine Tree Power, would have bought out the assets of Maine’s two investor-owned utilities, CMP and Versant, using revenue bonds, taking over the distribution of 97 percent of the state’s electricity.

“I came here excited to be working every day on this campaign because I am terrified for my future and I need a utility that is going to be working for me,” Lucy Hochschartner, deputy campaign manager and spokesperson for Our Power, the group behind the ballot initiative, told the Portland Press Herald. “That would have been Pine Tree Power. It is not and never has been and never will be CMP and Versant.”

The measure, called Question 3, prompted heated debate in the months leading up to the election. Central Maine Power and Versant Power, the state’s dominant utilities, poured more than $40 million into a campaign opposing the referendum, outspending Pine Tree Power advocates 34 to 1. Political groups funded by the utilities and their parent companies mailed flyers and aired ads on TV, radio, and social media, urging Mainers to reject the measure, which would have effectively put the two companies out of business. 

Opponents argued that ditching the established players would introduce unwelcome political influence into the state’s energy system. They also said the cost of buying the utilities’ infrastructure — estimated at $8.25 billion to $13.5 billion — would lead to higher rates for customers and a decade or more of legal battles and bureaucratic delays. Our Power, the advocacy group formed to rally around the referendum, called such claims overblown, noting that they would have negotiated the lowest possible price and any challenges could have been resolved within three to four years.

The ballot measure was the culmination of years of Mainers’ frustration with CMP and Versant. Both have been accused of exorbitant rates, prolonged outages, and poor customer service. Over the years, state regulators have repeatedly fined CMP for improperly sending disconnection notices and misbilling hundreds of thousands of customers.

Supporters of Pine Tree Power also accuse the utilities of lobbying to delay climate action. In recent years, clean energy advocates have railed against CMP for causing delays in connecting new solar projects to the grid. Our Power said a nonprofit, publicly-owned utility would have better served Maine by representing residents’ interests while providing lower rates, improved reliability, and greater investment in expanding the grid to accommodate more renewables. 

Question 3 supporters in Maine joined a growing movement of activists who argue that only a publicly owned and managed power grid can ensure a rapid transition to renewables while prioritizing the needs and interests of consumers. Public power advocates from San Diego to Rochester, New York, heralded the referendum as the biggest battle so far in the fight for public power and an inspiration for similar efforts in their own communities.

Hochschartner told Grist in October that even with a loss, the fight for public power in Maine is far from over. While the campaign doesn’t have any clear next steps mapped out, “What we do know is that our utilities have real problems, and we will continue to fight for the best path forward for the people of Maine,” she said.

This story by Akielly Hu was originally published by Grist and is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.


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