Mainers Consider Putting Electricity, Internet in Local Hands (Episode 103)

Date: 25 Jun 2020 | posted in: Building Local Power | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

On this episode of Building Local Power, host Jess Del Fiacco is joined by Christopher Mitchell, director of ILSR’s Community Broadband Initiative, and Representative Seth Berry of Maine. Seth is the House Chair of the Maine Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology, and he is leading the call for the state to takeover Maine’s two largest electric companies ⁠— including Central Maine Power, which has the distinction of being the least popular utility in the United States.

Jess, Christopher, and Seth discuss:

  • The many ways a consumer-owned utility would benefit Mainers, including greater accountability to customers, more dollars kept in the local economy, and a faster, more equitable clean energy transition.
  • Past and present efforts to expand Internet access in Maine, including initiatives led by communities and locally-owned ISPs all over the state, as well as an upcoming referendum that, if passed, will allocate $15 million in funding for Internet infrastructure.
  • The often frustrating, slow road to legislative action, and why we need more people committed to long-term efforts to make change.

“…the amount of power, in fact, that flows over those wires, may be four or five times as much as what we’re consuming right now by the year 2050 if what we really want to do is decarbonize. And that is our goal… we can do that, we can get there. And if we use the tax-exempt lower-cost financing of a consumer-owned utility, we can keep our money in Maine instead of pumping it out of the state to overseas investors who don’t even know where Maine is… and we can afford to make that clean energy transition much more rapidly.”

 

Jessica Del Fiacco: Hello, and welcome to Building Local Power, a podcast dedicated to thought-provoking conversations about how we can challenge corporate monopolies, and expand the power of people to shape their own future. I’m Jess Del Fiacco, the host Building Local Power, and communications manager here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
Jessica Del Fiacco: For 45 years, ILSR has worked to build thriving equitable communities where power, wealth, and accountability remain in local hands. Today, I’m excited to be joined by Chris Mitchell, who directs our community broadband work here at ILSR, as well as representative Seth Berry of Maine. Actually, of is it Bowdoinham? Great. Okay.
Chris Mitchell: I’m impressed.
Jessica Del Fiacco: I can’t always nail the New England place names. I’m glad I got that one. Anyways, welcome to the show.
Seth Berry: Thank you. Great to be with you guys.
Jessica Del Fiacco: I think to get us started, could you share what your current priorities are for Building Local Power in Maine?
Seth Berry: Sure. So, as a member of the state legislature, and as the house chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology, the clean energy transition, and also the information age, and the flow of information are two really critical components that we oversee. And I’ve been deeply involved for, I guess, a year and a half now, in an effort to take back our power. And by that, I mean to create a democratic consumer-owned utility for our electrical grid.
Seth Berry: Maine is a restructured state. So, the utility delivers, does not generate electricity. And I think the telecommunications infrastructure, and the electrical infrastructure are a lot alike, and that you really want to have a neutral open-access network for the flow of hopefully, good information, good democratic information, and good clean energy. These two things are directly connected, they’re actually on the same poles together.
Seth Berry: And my committee oversees that, but this effort to create a consumer-owned utility for Maine, and to join Nebraska as one of the… we would be the second state to have entirely consumer-owned utilities is really what I’ve been focused on primarily for the last year and a half. Every bill relating to my committee’s topics come before our committee. But this has been my real passion. And I’m really lucky to be joined by a huge coalition that’s been working on this with me.
Chris Mitchell: So, let me ask you, because when I first met John Farrell, before either of us was working for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, we were in grad school together, and I was learning about renewable portfolio standards, which is a minimum amount of electricity that utilities had to get from renewable sources. And at the time, I seem to recall, Maine was getting almost all this power already from relatively green sources from hydro power. And so, I’m just curious, why is electricity something that is important to organize around in Maine.
Seth Berry: Yeah. Maine is pretty good in terms of our renewable portfolio standard. You’re right, we have about 40% of our electricity is currently renewable. We do include the burning of biomass, so wood chips in that. Some of that is wood that is harvested very sustainably, virtually biproducts of our lumber mills, and paper processing. But you can make an argument, that’s not entirely green.
Seth Berry: And then, very excitingly, we passed a bill to get us to 80% renewable procurement by the year 2030 with a goal of 100% by 2050. But keep in mind, that’s electricity, and it doesn’t represent necessarily, the shift to electricity for the for transportation or the shift to electricity for building heating, and cooling, or for industrial processes.
Seth Berry: Those are the much bigger contributors to greenhouse gas from Maine’s economy, and from the economy most states. So, we need to electrify everything. That’s really the way that we make our clean energy transition in Maine, and around the world, electrify transportation, electrify building, heating, and cooling, electrify industrial processes.
Seth Berry: And that is going to have a dramatic, massive implication, set of implications for the grid, the electrical grid. And we need a grid that we can afford, one that we can count on to be there for us, and one that we can control. And right now, we really have none of those things in our current investor-owned, for-profit, multinational monopoly model.
Jessica Del Fiacco: I’m wondering if there was already a public push towards this to take over this private utility, or what’s your sense of how bad people want this right now.
Seth Berry: Until I decided a couple years ago that I wanted to introduce this bill, there really wasn’t a movement for it. But I’m really pleased with the response, and a movement has grown up, and is growing bigger all the time. There was a lot of frustration over the last 14 years since I first came into the legislature about Central Maine Power, our largest for-profit monopoly utility.
Seth Berry: And the kinds of political positions that they took, they would vigorously, and successfully oppose efforts to promote rooftop solar so that people could have a little bit of their own green clean power destiny. They would vigorously oppose efforts to promote energy efficiency and conservation.
Seth Berry: And we have managed to do some really good things in those areas despite the utility, but their lobby, and their legal team, and their engineers, and others who appear at the public utilities commission are very well paid, very sophisticated, very numerous, and they get what they want a lot of the time. So, there was frustration, but there was never until now, this rarely unifying movement to create an alternative. And that’s what’s been exciting about this, this new moment in the industry.
Chris Mitchell: Well, it seems like if you’re going to be pushing so many new sales in the direction of electricity, because as people are transitioning from other technologies, you’re going to more than double perhaps the electricity demand of the state. You really want to make sure that that’s going to a responsible entity, that’s going to be invested in Maine’s future, and not just trying to extract wealth out of Maine.
Seth Berry: That is so true. And I think, yeah, at least double, quite possibly triple the capacity of the grid that’s required, and that’s where their profits really come in is how much infrastructure do they build. Their equity investors get double digit interest off of every pole, every wire, every substation, every transformer that they invest in.
Seth Berry: So, they love investment, and they brag about it, but they’re not doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. They’re making buckets of money, and it’s all being extracted from our state. And you’re absolutely right, the amount of power, in fact, that flows over those wires, maybe four or five times as much as what we’re consuming right now by the year 2050 if what we really want to do is decarbonize.
Seth Berry: And that is our goal, that’s our stated goal, we can do that, we can get there. And if we use the tax-exempt lower-cost financing of a consumer-owned utility, we can keep our money in Maine instead of pumping it out of the state to overseas investors who don’t even know where Maine is, much less care about us. And we can keep our money here, and we can afford to make that clean energy transition much more rapidly.
Seth Berry: And to the benefit of lower-income Mainers who might otherwise really struggle in this transition, or industry that might otherwise really struggle. We have a lot of industries like the paper mills, or the shipyards that are very sensitive to energy costs. So, this really does come down to whether we can do what we hope to do, what we say we want to do, or maybe not accomplish that, maybe only get halfway there.
Chris Mitchell: The other thing that I feel like we need to bring up is that it’s not like this is a company that’s doing a good job, and just happens to be making a lot of money. This is a company that has failed to provide a reliable product.
Seth Berry: Miserably. They have failed miserably. They have recently been rated by J.D. Power and Associates, which does an annual ranking. And they used to brag about their scores. They were rated in November of 2019 as being the worst of all 87 large utilities in the country by far. Imagine a scatterplot where there are 86 dots that are all at the top half of the Y-axis, and then there’s one dot that’s way down at the very bottom of the Y-axis.
Chris Mitchell: Almost like a mistake.
Seth Berry: In other words, they’re an extreme outlier. And my favorite part about this is that upper half, where all other 86 are clustered, the lowest of those is PG&E, which is as you may recall, the utility in Northern California that killed 85 people in the camp fire in Paradise, California, was convicted of six felonies for gas explosions that killed six people in 2010, went bankrupt twice in the last two decades, was found to be guilty of wining and dining public utilities commission leaders, all kinds of really shady stuff. And yet, PG&E is a whole lot better than Central Maine Power, according to the business customers that were surveyed.
Jessica Del Fiacco: Yeah. The bar is on the ground, and you are somehow now below the ground, like burrowing underneath.
Seth Berry: Exactly. They have gone to the eternal hell of damnation by their customers. That’s where they rate with their customers right now.
Jessica Del Fiacco: So, the reason we have Chris on this interview today is because we’re going to bring this around to broadband. What does taking over private utility have to do with improving broadband access in the state?
Seth Berry: Everything in my view. Actually, a really cool article just came out in Governing Magazine. I don’t know if you guys subscribe to that one, but it’s about Mississippi, which if you think about it, Maine actually has a lot in common with Mississippi. We’re relatively low income, relatively rural, we have a bit of a tourism economy, we both have shipyards, and we also both have a little bit of a francophone.
Seth Berry: I guess a lot of that is in Louisiana, but some of the Acadian diaspora ended up down there. Anyway, in a weird way, we’re like cousins. They’re like the conservative cousin of Maine. And Mississippi just freed up their coops, their electrical coops to invest in telecommunications, and to provide Internet services to their customers.
Seth Berry: And I thought what a cool thing that Mississippi is doing, and it’s getting a lot of attention around the country now that that Governing article has come out. And that’s the thinking that I’m really interested in pursuing. If you do own the poles, if you do own the wires, then there’s a lot of synergy there for deployment of high-speed internet in the rural areas.
Seth Berry: Typically, 25% to 40% of the cost is just attaching to the poles. And some of that is cost that can’t be avoided, but some of it is also profit. If the electrical company owns the poles, and a swanky new ISP wants to attach fiber to those poles, they’re probably going to pay a little more than just what it costs to put them on, they’re going to pay some profit as well.
Seth Berry: If we can bring down the cost, and also be more proactive about how we configure the wires on the poles in the first place, a little more one touch make ready type philosophy, then we can really speed the deployment of high speed internet to the home, and to the business in a way that Maine desperately needs.
Seth Berry: We are the worst, or at least one of the top, the worst five in the country when it comes to the truly high speeds, and rural access to the internet, and that’s huge. We hope to be a part of the economy of the future, even the economy the present, we need to address that.
Jessica Del Fiacco: Yeah. I was wondering if there’s any specific stories you could share right now. I’m sure recently, it’s been even more top of mind with the pandemic.
Chris Mitchell: Perhaps your own amazing access at home.
Jessica Del Fiacco: The reason you’re not at home right now.
Seth Berry: You’re right. I am talking to you from my workplace, and I’ve had to commandeer a separate office. We have shared workspace in the lab. I work for a biotech lab, and that’s my day job. And we really value working together, and being close by, and having a modular approach to space. But obviously, the pandemic has changed everything.
Seth Berry: So, I had to commandeer a separate space to do my work. And that includes, I’m lucky to be able to fold in some of my legislative work that way because at home, I’m only two miles away at home, but I’ve got three down, and 768 in a .768 up on a good day. And I’ve got two kids there who have been trying to do distance learning with high school.
Seth Berry: I’ve got a sister who lives with that really likes to watch Netflix, and my wife has also been working from home. She’s an EdTech in the local school system, and has had to have meetings with students through video conferencing and whatnot. So, bottom line, it’s just incredibly difficult at home.
Seth Berry: And I live three miles from the highway between the state capital and the largest city in the state. I’m halfway between Portland and Augusta, and I’m only three miles off the highway. So, imagine if I were in the north woods of Maine, from Augusta where the state capital is located, I can get in a car, and drive for five hours to the north, and see nothing but woods, and mountains, and streams, and lakes.
Seth Berry: And there are people that live there, and if they have internet at all, they’re fortunate. There’s about 15% of Maine that’s got nothing that could remotely be called high speed, and probably don’t have cell phone access when it’s cloudy outside either.
Chris Mitchell: Maine does have some things going forward though. And I want to note some of those, in the broadband space in particular, despite the fact that there’s a lot of challenges. But I also wanted to throw in regarding the poles that one of the things people also forget is that there’s a rental fee every year that you’re paying on every pole that you’re on.
Chris Mitchell: And so, owning the poles can make the business case better over time, as well as just that upfront cost of getting on the poles. So, it’s really quite nice to own the poles, and have that freedom to make decisions. Owners make decisions is what I often think about. So, Maine has so much going forward in the broadband future. It has the three-ring binder, which was put together by local folks that are doing great jobs.
Chris Mitchell: You’ve got some great local, private independent companies that are doing good work. You have the Maine Broadband Coalition, which is one of the best organizations we see in any states for organizing this. And then, let me tell you this from the outside, and you can laugh at me, but it seems to me like the Maine legislature gets it in ways that others don’t. Most of what we talked about hasn’t really tapped into the fact that you have played an important role in the legislature.
Chris Mitchell: You’ve been there for a while, and it slipped to me like Republicans and Democrats alike all agree we should spend more on broadband. When Governor LePage was in, there was an effort to spend millions of dollars on broadband. And yet, the state hasn’t really gotten around to it. And so, I’m curious with all the things that you do have, all the interest that’s there, how come the state hasn’t actually been able to do more to-
Seth Berry: I was with you right up until you said that the Maine legislature gets it, and then I have to slightly disagree. Because we do have a lot going for us, and there has been progress. We have also this wonderful thing called the ConnectMaine Authority, which we and I think Tennessee, was one of the earlier states along with us to create an entity that would do planning grants, as well as infrastructure grants to communities they wanted to take broadband into their own hands, try to provide it, bring it to their rural communities.
Chris Mitchell: Yeah. Let me plus one that. I definitely agree the planning aspect important-
Seth Berry: Yeah. Right, it is. And so, ConnectMaine is this wonderful thing, but it has a budget, which is ridiculous. It’s been like a million bucks a year. It’s like $1 per Maine or per year to help to bring that last mile. Yes, we have this good middle mile. But the last mile, we’re just devastatingly bad at. It’s always really since we created ConnectMaine back in 2007 or so, it’s been an issue of finance.
Seth Berry: We just need to put money to it. Because we’ve got the model, we’ve got everything else in place. But financing the ConnectMaine Authority has been unfortunately, a partisan issue. And we’ve tried to fund it through budgets, we’ve tried to fund it through bond issues. And generally, my friends on the Republican side of the aisle have just not been willing to actually put their money where their mouth is.
Seth Berry: They talk about broadband, but then they’re like, “Well, yeah, but the private sector can do that. We just need to free them up. We just need to cut red tape, and then they’ll take care of it.” And we all know that doesn’t work. The finances aren’t there. The private sector themselves is telling us, it’s going to take money to do this, to close the financing gap.
Seth Berry: But there’s just been a disconnect, and I think, frankly, a lack of attention to the real needs of rural communities, which ironically, my Republican friends tend to represent more often than the Democrats do. So, they have been voting against the interests of their constituents in many cases by not being willing to come along on a broadband bond.
Seth Berry: We had a proposal last fall that would have put just $15 million towards broadband, and that was shot down on a party line vote, where it takes two-thirds of both the House and the Senate to approve a bond. So, we have to have both parties involved. The one Republican who voted for that bond last fall was my friend [Tom Schofield 00:17:34], who really gets it.
Seth Berry: And there are people like Tom in the caucuses who want to do more, and have learned about it, and have taken the time. Tom is also the co-chair with me, one of the co-chairs of the nonpartisan broadband caucus of the legislature, that’s a new thing. So, we’re making some progress there, and I’m optimistic. We did ultimately, by pairing the bond with transportation, which my Republican colleagues generally do vote for, we were able to get a bond passed this spring.
Seth Berry: And almost everyone voted for that because it included $100 million for transfer transportation, and $15 million for broadband. And the people of Maine will get to vote on that bond, the $15 million for broadband in July, that’s July 14th. And that’s exciting because even though it took some compromises to get us to that, it will be the first time that Maine people have been able to vote on a bond to dedicate money to broadband infrastructure.
Seth Berry: Every year, we spend $100 million on roads and bridges. And every year, the people mean by 70%, seven out of 10-margin will approve the transportation bonds. I predict a similar support for the broadband bond. And frankly, we need to be bonding at a scale like that for the next five years. We did 100 million a year like we’re doing for transportation.
Seth Berry: In five years, we’d be done. We’d have fiber to every home, every business, and once you have fiber, there are no potholes to fix, to fill in. It’s not like roads, you’re done for quite a while, and we don’t even know the true limits of fiber infrastructure in terms of the speed it can handle. It’s very durable, very lasting. So, I do think that once people get their heads around it, we can really make Maine a destination for people that can work from anywhere, or study from anywhere, or provide telehealth from anywhere.
Seth Berry: And one, a beautiful state with all kinds of quality of life opportunity, lakes, and mountains, and rivers, and hiking, and wonderful restaurants, and coastal towns, and boating, skiing, you name it. It’s a great place to live. But a lot of young people look at it and say, “I can’t do Millinocket, it’s great a place, but I can’t run my graphic design business out of Millinocket.”
Chris Mitchell: Well, let me just note, I fully agree with what you said. I feel like it’s always important to note that there are some periodic upgrades that are required to keep the fiber running. And I know that you appreciate that. And it’s true, they’re nowhere near the cost of roads, but we shouldn’t let anyone get the impression that they’re zero. Because then colleagues of mine, who are often engineers, and pay attention to details very closely, will say, “No, you do have to pay money over time.”
Chris Mitchell: And it’s true, but compared to roads and many other physical infrastructures like bridges, it is not that significant of an amount. One of the things I wonder about is whether that’s actually one of the challenges that you identified, which is that there’s probably a lot of people in Maine who don’t want people from New York, Connecticut, Boston to come up, and spend a lot more time in these towns.
Chris Mitchell: I’m guessing that there’s a little bit of a split depending on whether you’re there for the solitude, and the old, the more rustic feel, or if you’re a shop owner, that’s independent on-
Seth Berry: That’s true. There is a certain love-hate relationship with the tourists who frankly, keep our economy afloat, and this notion that people from away are different or don’t understand us. But I think the overriding concern for Maine right now is we are the oldest state in the nation, and we don’t have a future, we’re dying faster than we’re giving birth.
Seth Berry: And the state really doesn’t have an economic future. It looks very scary if we don’t keep our young people here in Maine, and also attract other young people as well. We could build a wall around the entire state, and not let anybody out, any of those young people, and we’d still be shrinking our workforce. And that’s a sobering reality.
Seth Berry: And I think that, again, so folks who have been paying attention to these trends, and tend to these larger concerns, really do want to see a Maine that is friendly to the economy of the future.
Chris Mitchell: Well, and there again, I really hope that we can take some of the wisdom that you were sharing regarding the importance of putting all this money toward locally accountable institutions that have Maine in the future. I am excited that consolidated the telephone company that is currently providing a lot of the telephone service, and some of the broadband in Maine. It’s now the big incumbent. They’re doing some interesting partnerships in New Hampshire.
Chris Mitchell: And we’ve cautiously decided that we think those are a good thing, the way they’re structured. At the same time, I think Maine has so many great local companies, you have some real good municipal broadband networks, and potential for so many more that we’re really hoping that we see this broadband investment go to entities that are rooted in the future of Maine.
Seth Berry: That’s so important. I’m really, really, really excited about places like Baileyville and Calais, who have created their own broadband utility in one of the most far-flung rural areas, way down near the Canadian border in the coastal region that is Baileyville and Calais. That area also happens to be served by Eastern Maine Electric Cooperative. So, I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
Seth Berry: I think they understand the value of you know taking it into your own hands, and democratizing infrastructure, whether that’s clean energy infrastructure, or telecommunications. That’s a really exciting one. There are others though that where there are municipal efforts, Sanford, the work they’re doing with GWI. GWI was responsible for the three-ring binder, very, very interesting work there.
Chris Mitchell: And Islesboro as well, and many other towns.
Seth Berry: Islesboro, yeah. That’s right. There’s a three-bridged islands effort in Arrowsic, Southport, and Georgetown. That’s in my neck of the woods, really excited about that. But you’re right, there’s an opportunity to do a whole lot more, and I think that Maine is a great destination. It is an incredible place to live. Portland is one of the best dining experiences in America right now.
Seth Berry: Our restaurants are struggling a little bit, but just the quality of life that we have here is so tremendous. And if we could see more of these networks springing up, I think that we’ll be in a much better position going forward.
Jessica Del Fiacco: We’re going to take a short break. Thanks for tuning in to this episode of the Building Local Power podcast. If you enjoy listening to the show, if you share in our vision of thriving equitable communities in Maine and beyond, please consider making a donation to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
Jessica Del Fiacco: Not only does your support underwrite this podcast, but it also helps us produce invaluable research, and resources that we make available for free on our website. Please take a moment and go to ilsr.org/donate. Any amount is sincerely appreciated.
Chris Mitchell: So, I asked Jess if we could staple on one other topic to this, which is something I’ve been wrestling with a little bit, and I feel like you’re a good person to ask about it. As you mentioned, you’re the chair of the House committee, the Joint Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology. You were a majority leader for one time.
Chris Mitchell: You were an assistant majority leader. I feel like you’ve seen a lot of different aspects of how the legislature functions. You’ve worked you work in the private sector in a fast-moving technology, which is something a lot of people have given up on government. And they’re thinking that those companies will be the future.
Chris Mitchell: And there’s something that I’ve seen lately, which is I think there’s some people who are on a track to maybe do that work, and they see these protests, and they’re wondering, “Am I doing the right thing by going into those areas, or would it be better to be putting my energy into demonstrating on the street, and really making a visible show of solidarity with people?”
Chris Mitchell: And I’m just curious how you think of that, as someone who’s seen both how slow and frustrating change can be at the legislature, but someone who obviously sees a lot of hope for that as well, I’m sure.
Seth Berry: Yeah. And government does move slowly. And sometimes, two steps forward and one step back, for sure. But it’s been an incredible experience. And Maine, like many states has a citizen legislature. So, my work in the private sector does really keep me grounded on that side of things as well. And I think it’s exactly this collaboration that’s going to be needed to get the clean energy transition right, and to get the transition to a democratic information future right, as well. And there are these wonderful, scrappy companies like GWI, and Axiom, and Pioneer, and LCI that are-
Chris Mitchell: I cannot mention [Otoko 00:26:39] now.
Seth Berry: Otoko, yeah, exactly right. Yes, thank you. All doing great work to work with municipalities, and other community groups to make it work. And in many cases, helping to level the playing field, and reduce the amount of money that we’re having to pump out of our economy for these larger ISPs. I do hope the consolidated can move some things forward as well.
Seth Berry: But I got to tell you, the big cable companies, they have not been very helpful. And in fact, I think they’ve sued the state about four times over bills that we passed in the last legislature alone, just trying to defend ridiculous billing practices, and putting peg channels into digital Siberia, and not wanting to have franchise agreements that serve the more rural areas.
Seth Berry: But big guys at least throw their weight around in ways that it’s just… and it’s incredibly counterproductive. And I see the same thing with our energy utilities. When you have a monopoly, you have a whole lot of power and what is it they say? Power corrupts, right? It’s just these managers are responsible to very distant shareholders who don’t particularly care about the people that they serve.
Seth Berry: And they want to see a strong quarterly return, and that’s frankly, all they care about. So, it’s very extractive and frankly, very abusive of the customers. So, it is really about exactly this democratic effort that you guys are working so hard on. And I love the Institute for Local Self-Reliance work.
Chris Mitchell: Well, let me ask, say that I’m asking you for counsel, and I’m saying here I am, this person who back when I was in grad school, and I’m looking at the demonstrations now, and I think that those are important. And what I’m about to say in no way suggests that we don’t need people out in the streets, but if I was to say, I feel like I should spend my time organizing people go to marches and things like that, rather than figuring out how a bill becomes a law in reality, and making it happen.
Seth Berry: Yeah, I got you. Yeah. So, I do think that change takes a lot of patience, and a lot of attention to detail. You have to be in it for the long march. It is a marathon and not a sprint. And think about Martin Luther King, and the decades on decades that he worked. He gave it all. And if he were still alive today, he’d still be out there looking to build something better.
Seth Berry: And I applaud everyone who has gotten out there on the streets, and showed their concern, but that only gets you to maybe a thought, people maybe have a different thought. You might change a heart or a mind here or there. But we really need a sustained effort to change the paradigm, and to create a democratic, and just transition for the entire economy.
Seth Berry: I think that energy and telecommunications are a massive part of that. Obviously, healthcare, criminal justice. There are a lot of different areas where you can really dig in, and do the work in the trenches to create that better paradigm. But it doesn’t come just because we wave assign, we have to do a lot more than that. We have to really engage at some level, and believe in what we’re doing, and see how it fits in to that democratic feature that we all hope for.
Chris Mitchell: Yeah. And I’ll turn it back over to Jess here. But one of the things that I think about is that we need more people carrying signs. We don’t need everyone carrying a sign to read John Farrell’s long… the word just escapes me, but comments that he files in different proceedings, but we do need a few people.
Seth Berry: Yeah, we do.
Chris Mitchell: We need some people doing that hard-boring work that honestly, it’s not always obvious how it connects. But for the work that you’re doing, we need someone to do the research as to how we can change the system to make it better along the way. And so, that’s what I hope people are grasping that, we need more people in all aspects of this.
Seth Berry: That’s so true. Yes. And every different skillset, there’re so many different ways people can plug, and if you have technical skills, if you’re really gifted as a communicator, if you have some legal background, if you’re an engineer, finance. My son is thinking about, he just graduated yesterday, actually, and he’s thinking about studying economics and political science.
Seth Berry: And I love it that he’s interested in economics. He’s really good at math. And so much of the need for justice does revolve around people just understanding how the economic systems work right now. And the money that we are just pumping out of our economy for basic telecommunications service, basic energy infrastructure is it’s pretty shocking.
Seth Berry: And once you understand the problem, it’s a lot easier to actually envision the solution. But these are the systems that have kept black, and brown people, and other historically poor people down for so many generations. And it’s exactly what we need to be confronting and working to change.
Jessica Del Fiacco: Yeah. As a communications person, I’m always thinking about what the optics of anything is, and how you get people to care about anything. And I don’t want to A, protest, any street protests is the result of long-term organizing, which is really hard work, and takes that long vision of what you’re trying to build and B, is the best, I wish I could get someone to scream in the street every time we’re releasing a new report with that really, really important information that most people aren’t going to read.
Jessica Del Fiacco: Right now, I’m not thinking that much about Xcel Energy even though they supply my electricity, but if someone was screaming in my yard about Xcel Energy right now, I’d probably be like, “Well, you should go learn more about Xcel Energy,” I guess. So, it’s not really a separate thing. It’s all working together.
Seth Berry: It is, and I guess part of what I’m struggling with is, if we could get people out in the street to protest Exelon, or Central Maine Power, or Spectrum, or Comcast cable, the abuses that some of these large monopolies inflict on us, that’d be incredible. That’d be really transformative, and to fight for a positive vision. I think it would be wonderful if we could. Because they get into really esoteric areas. And so, it is harder sometimes to bring the masses there with you when you’re gone down some technical utility rabbit hole.
Jessica Del Fiacco: Man, you’re telling me-
Seth Berry: Yeah, right?
Jessica Del Fiacco: … smooth communications person to this organization.
Seth Berry: It is so important.
Chris Mitchell: And let me just say that six, seven years ago, there was a sense like, no one’s ever going to know what net neutrality is. And I have gone to parties in which I heard people talking about net neutrality, who were not techie people. And I don’t mean this is a slight against the communications people who told us that we could never get anyone to understand net neutrality because it was a bad term. It was just that there had to be a lot of work, there was a lot of boring work that was done to turn it into something that people paid attention to.
Seth Berry: And consumer owned utilities, that’s probably a few too many syllables. But I think that’s a really powerful frame. And when I talk about consumer and utilities, whether that’s electricity, and clean energy transition, or telecom utilities, I think that is just an incredibly important way to talk about these things. Utilities aren’t even consumer-owned utilities, really are not government in the way that people think sometimes negatively about government.
Seth Berry: They’re kind of quasi-governmental, the smaller consumer-owned utilities here in Maine that provide power are very, very popular with their members, and do a great job. And I think there are some other ways to talk about consumer and utilities. People talk about public power, for example. I don’t think that really is as accurate or as helpful, frankly. Because the magic of the consumer and utility is it’s got a little bit of business in it.
Seth Berry: It’s not all government. And it actually is something that [inaudible 00:35:26] outside of the line of government as well, in terms of finance, it doesn’t use tax dollars. So, we have this bond issue we talked about, we’re going to be investing $15 million, hopefully in broadband, and that’s great, but those are tax dollars. And we’re going to be heading into an economy where state government is going to be just bleeding financially.
Seth Berry: We are going to have such a hard time just funding our K-12 schools, and funding our health and human services safety net in the next few years. And we just went through this after the 2007 crash. State government basically finances itself off of sales taxes, and income taxes, and those are going to be down. They’re going to be back in the toilet again. Sales are down, incomes are down already.
Seth Berry: So, where’s the money going to come from? Well, if you have a utility model, whether that’s broadband or energy, you can finance it off of your future rates. You’re borrowing at these incredibly low tax-exempt rates, 2% to 3%, over 20 years. You’re paying half as much as you would pay the utility to pay for that infrastructure. And this is the stuff I really get excited about. It’s super geeky and nerdy, but if you can do something for half as much, why the heck wouldn’t you? That’s just crazy.
Chris Mitchell: Yeah. No, this is so important. There’s a joke, not joke, there’s a saying that the bonds really is what makes the world turn. And it’s really important to understand that. A lot of people don’t really understand debt, but if you’re borrowing money to build broadband at 2.5% or 3%, which is just remarkably low rates, that means that the broadband improvements to the economy have to be just tiny in order to justify it.
Chris Mitchell: And anything above that is gravy, it’s so much of just extra benefit to the community. And so, yeah, this is a time in which we shouldn’t expect Maine to be budgeting and appropriating for broadband, it should absolutely be borrowing at these rates because we know that this will grow the economy of Maine faster, and will pay for itself.
Chris Mitchell: And these are things that, again, just from my own experience, it did take me years of understanding how all these different systems come together to have an appreciation for that. But knowing that is how you can get these things done.
Seth Berry: Right. And it really is about justice. You think about the folks who are at the margins, for whatever reason, whether that’s racial or economic, the average Mainer, who is below federal poverty guidelines, and we do have a lot of low-income Mainers.
Seth Berry: They’re spending a quarter of their budget right now on energy, and that’s just not sustainable. If we do well-intentioned things to improve our environmental profile, our greenhouse gas emissions that cost more, then we’re going to really put those folks in a world of hurt.
Chris Mitchell: Right. But that’s where a consumer-focused entity will have the incentive to make sure that they are getting those benefits of extra insulation, of more energy-efficient appliances, and things like that. These incentives, they matter so much.
Seth Berry: They really do. I’ve got a heat pump on the wall behind me, and these things are pretty critical to making a fast transition for building heating and cooling, to electricity, and then you need more clean energy generation as well. But it’s both building solar, and wind, and other storage, and other forms of generation, and shifting people to using electricity for heating, and cooling like, the heat pumps, and for electric vehicle for transportation.
Seth Berry: And if it costs more for that electricity, because we’re paying the utility for stuff that could have cost us half as much, we’re also not going to get there as quickly. As a poor person, I might think twice about getting a heat pump, or getting electric vehicle. Or for that matter, as a middle-class person, I might think twice about it. So, we want people to make that shift quickly, and bringing the cost down is going to accelerate that shift to beneficial electrification.
Chris Mitchell: This took a little longer than I expected it to, but this is I think, been well worth it. A lot of really good topics to think about on broadband, electricity, and where we can all put our efforts.
Seth Berry: I just want to say thank you for all the work you’re doing. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is so important, and what you’re doing is exactly… in it’s at the center of the bullseye that we are aiming for here in Maine. Mainers really value self-reliance. We have this long stubborn streak of Yankee independence, and that real Mainers have of old cars up on blocks in their front yard because you never know when you’re going to need that spare part.
Seth Berry: You’re self-reliant, or they have backyard gardens because you still have to can a few tomatoes just in case. And we really believe in self-reliance, and I think that we are at this perfect crossroads for both telecommunications and the clean energy transformation to come together in this really empowered consumer-owned way, this really democratic way. So, I’m just so excited to be working with you guys on this, and sharing ideas, and I’ll be reading John Farrell’s long filings at UCs for a long time to come, I’m sure.
Jessica Del Fiacco: Yeah. We are so thankful to have you out there doing the work.
Chris Mitchell: I will just throw in, John and I both tried to keep them humorous for those few brave souls that weighed into them.
Seth Berry: Very wise, very wise.
Jessica Del Fiacco: Page 42, you get a pun.
Seth Berry: Right, right. It’s worth it, every word.
Jessica Del Fiacco: Okay. Well, thank you guys so much.
Chris Mitchell: Thank you, Seth, and very much appreciated.
Seth Berry: Thank you. Great to visit with you guys.
Jessica Del Fiacco: Thank you for tuning in to this episode of the Building Local Power podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. You can find links to what we discussed today by going to ilsr.org and clicking on the show page for this episode. That’s ilsr.org. While you’re there, you can sign up for one of our many newsletters, and connect with us on social media.
Jessica Del Fiacco: Finally, you can help us out with a gift that helps produce this very podcast, and supports the research, and resources we make available on our website. You can also help us out by reading this podcast, and sharing it with your friends on iTunes, or wherever you find your podcasts.
Jessica Del Fiacco: The show is produced by Zach Freed and me, Jess Del Fiacco. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL. For the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I’m Jessica Del Fiacco, and I hope you’ll join us again in two weeks for the next episode of Building Local Power.

 

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Audio Credit: Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL Ft: Fourstones – Scomber (Bonus Track). Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Photo Credit: iStock/Paulaandreaonline

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Jess Del Fiacco
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Jess Del Fiacco

Jessica Del Fiacco is the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Communications Manager. She works closely with all of our initiatives to build community power and combat monopolies, and she runs ILSR’s social media networks on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Jessica also produces the Institute’s Building Local Power podcast. Contact Jessica for media inquiries.

Jess Del Fiacco
Follow Jess Del Fiacco:
Jessica Del Fiacco is the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Communications Manager. She works closely with all of our initiatives to build community power and combat monopolies, and she runs ILSR’s social media networks on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Jessica also produces the Institute’s Building Local Power podcast. Contact Jessica for media inquiries.