Rep. Seth Berry on the Movement for Publicly-Owned Power in Maine — Episode 140 of Local Energy Rules

Date: 6 Oct 2021 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Electric customers in Maine, who are fed up with lousy utility service, can use a ballot initiative to take back their power.

For this episode of the Local Energy Rules Podcast, a rebroadcast from the Building Local Power Podcast, host John Farrell speaks with Maine State Representative Seth Berry. Berry was the Maine House sponsor of LD 1708, a bill to establish a consumer-owned utility, and serves as Chair of the Maine Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities, and Technology. Farrell and Berry discuss Our Power Maine: the ongoing initiative to kick investor-owned utilities to the curb and establish a consumer-owned utility in Maine.

Listen to the full episode and explore more resources below — including a transcript and summary of the conversation.

Seth Berry:
John Farrell: For nearly 100 years, most U.S. states have provided electric utilities with monopoly service territories, including many large investor-owned businesses. In Maine, however, these large (and foreign owned) corporations are providing last-placed service and reliability at above market prices. The legislature recently passed a bill to transform these private companies to consumer ownership, and to open the grid to more innovative solutions to address affordability and the climate crisis. Rep. Seth Berry, House Chair of the Maine legislature’s joint standing committee on Energy, Utilities, and Technology, joined me in July 2021 to explain how consumer ownership could prioritize service, reliability, and clean power.

I’m John Farrell, director of the Energy Democracy Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and this is Local Energy Rules, a biweekly podcast sharing powerful stories about local, renewable energy. This episode was originally published on ILSR’s Building Local Power podcast in August 2021.

Joining me today is Representative Seth Berry, he’s in the House Chair of the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Utilities, Energy and Technology in Maine. He’s been working on some terrific legislation that we’ve been following and I’m so glad that he can join me today. Seth, welcome to the program.

Seth Berry: It’s great to be with you, John. Big fan of all your work.
John Farrell: Well, I often ask guests when I start our conversations, what has motivated them to be interested in the energy sector. I feel like the issue that you’re working on, which is around this concept of ownership of the transmission grid in Maine, was probably more thrust upon you from what I understand of the different challenges that have come up and the complaints that consumers have had. But did you have an interest or a history of working on energy issues before this became such a central issue in Maine?
Seth Berry: I did, actually. I’m 52-years old, grew up in Maine, and came of age during the ’70s when energy was very much talked about for somewhat different reasons. Climate change was something that a few people were talking about, but relatively few. It was the time of peak oil and the OPEC embargo and there was a lot going on with renewables, as well as a lot of concern about nuclear. We had a power plant here very close to me, maybe 20 miles away as the crow flies, which there was an effort to shut down. I participated in that as a 10-year old.

I think other abiding interest from me that led me to this, and it really intersects with all three besides energy, I’m also very interested in social equality and economic equality, and spent 20 years in public education in a large part for that reason. Huge believer in the transformative value of education as well. And then closely related of course, democracy, and just having a very strong democracy. I spent some time as an intern in Congress as a young person and was very interested in the democratic process from an early age. So for me, the issue of customer control, consumer control of our monopoly energy utilities is really a place where all three of those things intersect. I think for me the overriding concern is the climate catastrophe that is upon us and that we need to take immediate action to prevent, but right there with it is economic equality, how we make this transition and adjust in equitable fashion. And also democracy because these decisions will impact all of us and we should all have a say in them. So obviously this is all very closely related to your work, it’s been great to have ILSR as a partner in this effort so far. Looking forward to what comes next.

John Farrell: So speaking of what comes next, or before we get to what comes next I should say, let’s talk about what’s been happening in the last few weeks. So it’s been, in a way, a little bit of a rollercoaster in Maine. So the legislature passed, and then the governor vetoed Bill Number 1708, which would’ve created the Pine Tree Power Company. So this is the consumer owned replacement, as you were alluding to, for the private utility Central Maine Power, or Versant, I guess, is also known. Could you explain why the legislature felt compelled to act and to intervene with the status quo here of the private ownership of the utility grid?
Seth Berry: Sure. And we do have two utilities actually, two large investor run utilities. One, Central Maine Power, which is owned by Avangrid, which is self-owned by Iberdrola based in Spain, but a huge multinational. And the other, which is a mid sized utility, is Versant. Versant is recently formed, they purchased what was formally Emera Maine. Versant, interestingly, is owned by a company called ENMAX and ENMAX is owned by the City of Calgary in Canada. So we have in this case a municipal governmental owner who is owning and running this utility as a for profit, so fascinating kind of [inaudible 00:05:06]. But by far, the larger utility is Central Maine Power, 640000 customers, give or take, and Versant has another 160,000 or so. So these two utilities together, however, have really failed Maine. And Versant is a relatively new owner, so we can’t blame them entirely for it, but they’re not doing great so far. They’ve asked for a 25% rate hike most recently, really dragged their heels on solar in a number of ways. And we’ve seen that from both utilities. Central Maine Power’s been the name of the larger utility since the early 1900s, and the two together have really especially resisted efficiency and rooftop solar and other distributed renewables.

Now, I saw that when I first came into the legislature back in 2007, and we’ve been fighting them on that ever since. They’ve been the 800 pound gorilla. They almost successful repealed net meter, actually did successfully repeal net metering under a previous governor and then we managed to restore it when Governor Mills took office back in 2018. So, this constant battle over the efforts of folks to have a little bit of local control through things like rooftop solar and efficiency. And then stepping back further, just an atrocious job of doing their job, the basic things that we expect of a utility. You keep the lights on, you keep the bills low, you answer the phone when a customer calls. They have failed to do any of those things well. In fact, we have, as a state, the worst reliability in the nation, bar none, that means the longest and most frequent outages, worst reliability. So they’re not keeping the lights on, we have the 10th highest rates in the nation, so they’re certainly not keeping the bills low. In fairness, we are restructured, so some of that is the competitive supply market and it’s hard to disaggregate the rates in comparing state to state. But more than half of our bill is simply the delivery, which is all that they were in charge of. And that portion of the bill has increased and increased. So 10th highest lowest reliability and satisfaction, are the customers happy? Absolutely not, worst customer satisfaction in the nation for CMP three years running, in fact. That’s on the JD Power Survey which is the industry recognized standard for customer satisfaction, it’s affiliated with consumer reports. And Versant, third worst in the nation.

So there’s 142 large and mid sized utilities across the country, consumer and investor owned, and we have the worst and the third worst in the nation. So there’s no question that the people of Maine are fed up with these utilities and their poor performance. And I believe the people of Maine also understand what’s really driving it, which is some larger economic and governance issues that we can talk about more.

John Farrell: I’m just so fascinated by the problems that you’re having. And it’s easy as an outsider, but to have utilities with the worst reliability in the nation and they are competing with, for example, PG&E in California which has had wildfire induced outages, and still to come in last is really saying something about that achievement in terms of reliability with the competition that they have across the country with some other serious issues.
Seth Berry: It’s impressive, to do worse than PG&E, which went bankrupt twice in the 20 years, plead guilty to killing 85 customers in Paradise, you really have to try to be worse than them, and yet they have succeeded.
John Farrell: So let’s talk a little bit about the legislation, so as I eluded, the legislation passed both houses at the legislature, it went to the Governor, the Governor has vetoed it at this point, so there’s a bit of a stalemate there. Talk about what it would have accomplished though if this bill had passed and had been signed by the Governor, what changes would it have made? How would it have addressed these issues of reliability and customer satisfaction and cost? But maybe also some of these larger questions, larger battles that you’d been fighting around things like energy efficiency and rooftop solar.
Seth Berry: Yeah, great. So I’ve been researching this for quite a while because I became interested in utility business models in large part through the example of Green Mountain Power in Vermont. They are, in fact, investor owned, but they’re a B corporation. And that got me thinking, what else is out there? So as a legislator just dipping my toe in those waters, I began to investigate further and became fascinated by the munis and the co-ops that are out there serving, together they serve one in three Americans. And munis have been since the dawn of the electric era, co-ops since the days of FDR, and they serve vast portions of the country. There are many that are quite large, the entire state of Nebraska, which by the way has the best reliability, but we have the worst. And the more I looked, the more I became fascinated and thought, “Why are we not doing this?” We also had a small consumer utility here in Maine come forward, Kennebunk Light & Power. And they wanted to serve the rest of the town to Kennebunk, Maine. They serve most of it now, a couple other towns as well. They wanted to serve the rest of Kennebunk and they brought a bill to do that. And long story short, as hard as we tried in the legislature, we passed a bill, we thought we’d solved the problem, the problem wasn’t solved. Central Mine Power managed to shut that down, they wanted to protect their captive customers at all costs, or rather protect the captivity of those customers at all cost, and to this day Central Maine Power has prevented Kennebunk Light & Power from serving the people in town that want to be served by them.

These small consumer utilities in Maine are far more reliable, have for better customer satisfaction and far lower rates than or investor run utilities, and that same comparison holds true if you look across the country, especially at munis. Obviously co-ops are very, very rural and have some significant cost drivers, so it’s a little hard to compare there. But here in Maine, the two investor run utilities charge 58% more than our non consumer run utilities, which serve part or all of 97 towns. 58% more, that’s a very significant thing, especially for our lower income Mainers who pay one in four of their meager dollars on energy. Very significant for our industrial sector, we have businesses like paper mills are very traditional here. Our larger paper mills’ costs go up a penny per kilowatt hour, and they’re paying two million more per year. We have a large ship building facility here, Bass Ironworks, costs go up a penny per kilowatt hour, they’re paying a million dollars more per year.

So from the point of view of business prosperity and job creation and certainly from the point of view of economic inequality, we’ve got to get this right if we’re going to shift ourselves onto a total dependence on electricity. The plan is to electrify everything, that’s how we decarbonize, the only way we decarbonize really is we electrify everything. We switch to electric vehicles, we switch to heat pumps to heat and cooL our buildings, we switch to electricity to power our factories, and we make sure that that electricity is renewable. But the grid is a monopoly. The wires running down your streets have to be a monopoly, it’s the only safe way to get it to you. You can’t have two sets of wires on the street. So that monopoly can be owned and control for the customers and by the customers, or by and for someone else far away. And increasingly, we’ve seen that that someone else is farther and farther away and less and less caring about the needs of the customers. So consumer ownership is proven nationally 13% lower rates, twice the reliability, far better customer satisfaction if you’re looking at munis in particular which is what we propose. And our proposal is to create the Pine Tree Power Company, which would be a large municipal hybrid serving the 800,000 customers here in Maine who are currently served by investor run utilities. We would buy them out, the bill proposed is a referendum component, so first it goes to the people and once the people have ratified the proposal, we move forward with the process. Then the first step after ratification is another election where we elect the board of the utility and that seven member elected board chooses some additional expert advisory members, they hire staff, they do some additional due diligence and business planning, and then they make their first move of course which is the initial offer to purchase the utility. That price is either negotiated, or if necessary litigated, we have a process for that. And then once the switch is made, a private operator, who is competitively contracted, takes over the operations of the grid.

So we’ve been working on this for three years. We’re very excited about the opportunity that it presents to really but Mainers in charge of our energy future, to have a democratic energy sector. That platform, that monopoly platform that delivers all of the solutions, whether they’re efficiency or demand reduction or aggregated demand reduction, which there’s some fascinating opportunities once you involved internet of things, clean energy future, obviously more generation, obviously more storage. We need all of that, we need a huge competitive, innovative set of solutions to bring that clean energy to us. And the grid stands between us and those solutions. So having it be noncompetitive, having it be not for profit, having it be democratically governed, it’s all incredibly important to making that democrat affordable clean energy future possible.

John Farrell: So I’m so gad that you covered a little bit more of that background. A lot of the listeners of this ILSR podcast are not steeped in the energy system, so it’s great to give a little of background to them about the unique structure of the electric system, as you said, it doesn’t make sense to have multiple sets of wires strung to homes. So it was decades ago that most states made utilities into monopolies formally. But we’re at this really interesting moment in time right now where the US Congress has recently advanced legislation to break up big tech companies because of what they’re commonly calling this platform monopoly problem. So as you eluded to in the electricity sector with the grid if it’s privately controlled they’ve got to squeeze on what can be done with the grid, like rooftop solar or energy efficiency and other things. But the tech companies were talking about how these private companies, these big corporations have become sort of gatekeepers to the economy and roadblocks to competition and to better service. Do you see some similarities between the two of the tech monopoly problem that congress is trying to deal with at a federal level and what you’re dealing with with Central Maine Power and the other IOU that they’ve sort of become too big to be accountable?
Seth Berry: Absolutely, yes, 100%. There are a few differences, but they’re relatively nuanced differences. The too big to fail problem absolutely exists in the energy utility sector as well, and the total dependency. If you’re a customer of Central Maine Power, you have zero choice. It’s not like where you can choose between Facebook and Twitter, you don’t even have that. You’ve got Central Maine Power or Central Maine Power or Central Maine Power, and they will be your provider. And by the way, Central Maine Power doesn’t really exist. It is a fiction created by a much larger company. It is owned by Avangrid, which is another fiction, it’s a holding company established primarily to access tax benefits from the US tax code, so it’s a US based company. But Avangrid is very purposefully 81.5% owned and wholly controlled by a larger company still called Iberdrola. Iberdrola, based in Spain, has many multinational shareholders, Black Rock is a big investor, the government of Qatar is a big investor through their oil based sovereign wealth fund. The Governor of Norway is another big investor through their oil based sovereign wealth fund. And there are many others as well, but truly it’s Iberdrola that holds 640,000 people in Maine and businesses in Maine hostage to their priorities, which of course is profit.

There is this state regulator thing, we do have state regulators and they can exercise some control over rates, so I want to be clear that this is not the kind of monopoly that can absolutely wreak havoc unrestrained, but let’s remember too that state regulators were actually established by the utility industry. It was in the early 1900s when Samuel Insull, the heir to the Edison empire, decided that he was going to pitch to all of his colleagues and competitors at the National Electric Lighting Association annual meeting the idea that they restrict themselves to fully monopoly territories and in order to justify that monopoly in the age of antitrust they said, “We’ll create state regulators. And we know that we will be able to work to do quite well within that model, we’ll have guaranteed profits, let’s go out and do it.” And they sure did. They went out and they convinced legislatures across the country to create public utility commissions and public service commissions to “regulate.” But for the last 120 years, they’ve basically rigged the regulatory system, and these state regulators are everyday more and more puny with respect to the massive multinational monopoly corporations which own and control these state by state utilities. So Maine’s situation is very similar to the situation of others. Avangrid and Iberdrola own several other utilities here in the Northeast, for example. They’re looking to buy a utility in New Mexico right now, P&M, which is also in part of Texas. And they have some very big plans for that region. So yeah, there is an incredible consolidation that has happened in the industry. Maine is now less than 2% of Iberdrola’s holdings, and our regulators are really the mouse where Iberdrola is the cat. The tables have turned, if they ever were right side up to begin with, and the game of cat and mouse is inverted so that there’s so many ways that they can escape meaningful regulatory intervention, whether it’s by hiding the ball or by lawyering up and threatening to sue or clever engineering and clever work of the tax code. They’ve really got us right where they want us, and the only way we break free of that is to change the business model.

John Farrell: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, we discuss the option for competitive access to the grid under consumer ownership, the next steps for the campaign after the gubernatorial veto, and advice from Rep. Berry for legislators in other states struggling with clean energy progress by their investor-owned utilities. You’re listening to a Local Energy Rules rebroadcast of a Building Local Power interview with Rep. Seth Berry,  House Chair of the Maine legislature’s joint standing committee on Energy, Utilities, and Technology, about legislation to transform Maine’s electric utility market.

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John Farrell: I wanted to ask you a little bit more about, when we talk about this idea of platform monopoly, because you kind of eluded to this earlier so I just want to drill down a little bit. In the case of Amazon, for example, so this is a company that ILSR has put a lot of scrutiny to, they control this marketplace which is open to third party sellers, so non Amazon sellers, but as we hae documented pretty well, Amazon has a lot of power over those sellers to compel them to use their own shipping services, their own warehousing services, et cetera. Because they can simply demote somebody’s listing and make it impossible for them to sell on their platform if they have control over it. One of the things you talked about earlier is the problem that we have in this era when we are trying to transform the grid system to address climate change, to take advantage of all these clean energy opportunities, is how utilities can act as a barrier to that. With the Pine Tree Company, with a consumer owned utility, is the idea that it will similarly exercise that kind of monopoly control, or is there an opportunity now where with this public utility it can be more like the road system where there’s lots of competitive deliver services, like UPS and FedEx and what not. Are we going to see more of that should this ever be successful to transform grid ownership?
Seth Berry: That’s a great question, and it really does make an important point. There’s actually more free market competition, not less, in the Pine Tree Power Company as we propose it. Because as I mentioned earlier, the operations of the company will be contracted out. So right away you have a competitive bidding process where people are sharpening their pencil and competing. That contract would likely be between five and 10 years with perhaps an option to renew based on performance. But there you have competition where right now we have none. Central Mine Power has an indefinite monopoly privilege on our power, both for the operations and the ownership. The solutions that will deliver much of the clean energy onto that monopoly grid are incredibly complex, fast moving, there’s new technology coming along all the time to create opportunities to both reduce peak demand, which is where the dirties and most expensive resources come online, to provide efficiency, which is the cheapest and cleanest energy, and to obviously bring a whole lot more renewable energy onto the grid, much of that decentralized, such as your rooftop solar. So how do we in this fast moving innovative space make sure that the utility, which everybody has to plug into, is not artificially creating roadblocks to certain kinds of resources which reduced its profits? Because, by the way, important concept here, the utilities profit more when they build more. That is the fundamental truth of the US investor owned regulatory system, the more you build the more you make. Because there was a couple supreme court decisions back in the 1920s and 1940s. The Bluefield Decision in the ’20s, the Hope Decision in the ’40s. Together they basically said, “Look, we must reward capital investment. We have to pay, if the utilities put in, if their shareholders put it X amount, then we’re going to give them 12% return on X and built that into the rates.” And that’s how we’ve operated ever since. So this isn’t something regulators can change, it’s not something that state legislators can change, even Congress can’t change a decision of the Supreme Court.

So we’re stuck and the utilities have perverse incentives just by virtue of doing their job, which is to maximize return to shareholders. They will say no or actively fight against certain innovative solutions, especially in the distributed space, especially those that reduce their ability to justify new overbuilding of the grid, new expenditures and big centralized systems, whether it’s transformers or very lucrative high voltage lines, sub stations. And in the case of utilities that own generation, big new centralized plants. That’s the traditional model they’re comfortable with. Some of it, of course, is just institutional inertia, where it’s the way we’ve always done it and we’re going to keep doing it that way. So we need to shake up the system for that reason as well, but a lot of it is this perverse incentive and lack of democratic governance that really leads to these kinds of behaviors to prejudice the utilities against the kinds of solutions that we’re going to need for a just and equitable transition.

John Farrell: I want to pivot back to talking about the future of this legislation and this effort to have a consumer owned utility. So as I eluded to before, the legislation was vetoed by the Governor and the legislature was not able to override that veto. There’s a campaign called Our Power Maine that’s organized around this legislation that the governor has vetoed, but as I understand it, the effort really isn’t dead. And I should also just add as a way of disclosure that ILSR does have a fiscal agency relationship with Our Power Maine, which is to say our accounting department helps process their finances for a small fee. We’re not intellectually or substantially involved in the campaign, but we are supporting it in that way. But tell me about how does Our Power Maine, how do is the fight continuing for consumer ownership of this utility?
Seth Berry: Yeah. Well, Our Power has really come a powerful group. It’s 30 statewide organizations, very grass roots. A lot of environmental interests, because I think the environmental community, uniquely, is focused on the next 30 to 50 years, not the next three to five, which a lot of businesses and politicians are more focused on. That’s been a huge source of support. But also, increasingly, those that are interested in governance reform and more democratic governance, those that are interested in economic equality and creating economic systems that are more equal. As we make this massive historic investment in our group, that is increasingly understood to be an opportunity to create a more equitable energy economy. So Our Power is going forward regardless. In Maine we are very fortunate to have the ability to take a question directly to the voters, who enact law by direct democracy. And we plan to do that. Maine has used this to good effect before in pioneering ranked choice voting, for example, first state in the nation to do that, and creating a clean election system way back in the 1990s which was a model for the nation, and leading on increasing the minimum wage. We’ve really used it well. The bottle bill way back in the ’70s, if you remember, we were the first state to put a five cent return on beverage containers.

So we believe Maine is an optimal place because of the frustration with our utilities, because of their historic resistance to renewables, because of their just incredibly lackadaisical attitude towards improvement and the frustration that’s palpable across the state of Maine. We believe that Mainers will see the need to take back our power and to have a say in this critical moment as we shift to clean energy and become dependent entirely on this monopoly grid. So we’ll be collecting signatures this fall, the Our Power Coaliltion is very interested in collaboration and support with others, but we are primarily just, entirely actually, just a Maine based coaliltion right now. We have a growing membership list of people signing up at this moment to circulate petitions and gather signatures this fall. We plan to bring it to the voters in November of 2022, and there’s a process that you have to go through leading up to that. You turn in the signatures, you get a hearing, and at the state house there’s an opportunity for the legislature to vote. But our plan would be to get it directly to the voters, and we’re very confident that that will be possible and that the outcome will be favorable.

John Farrell: And you said November 2022, is that right?
Seth Berry: That’s right, yep. And the bill that we worked in this year, which was a pretty historic achievement in itself, we got a 10 to two report by committee bipartisan strong majority vote out of committee. We got a majority in the House of Representatives with some republicans joining in with mostly democrats. A majority in the Senate with a similar kind of mix of bipartisan, but mostly democrats. And then the Governor, unfortunately, chose to veto the bill. And I appreciate this governor in many ways, but she was never really friendly to this, and even in her veto letter didn’t correctly name the bill, so it indicated to us a bit of lack of attention and just lack of commitment to the issue, unfortunately. But we’re hopeful that we can bring this forward, again, directly to the people. And that’s where often the biggest, boldest changes in Maine history at least have happened. And we want to be a proving ground for this concept nationally. We hope that we can help to pave the way for others. Our goal, by the way, is really to make Maine the first state in the nation to get to 100% clean energy for all of our needs, that’s the larger overarching goal of Our Power. But we believe also that is has these other collateral benefits, democratic governance and economic equality. And by the way, broadband as well, which is easier to attach to poles, the cost drivers are a bit lower. So another huge need in our area. It’s been fun to work with you guys on broadband as well, I’m very passionate about that work and I think that these things really intersect around the ownership of the pole and wire networks.
John Farrell: Yeah, you wanted to say, we’ve talked mostly about this bill and the struggle with the electrical utility around this, but broadband is in some ways very related that you have these larger private institutions, often cable companies, that are your service providers. Can you talk a little bit about how these two issues are going to intersect? You already kind of eluded to the fact that now if we own the poles and wires for the electric system we can use that to string fiber optic cable for broadband, but how else might they intersect?
Seth Berry: Maine is one of the states that is most desperately in need of rural broadband, and even in the areas where cable is an option, for example, people are really being strangled by the prices and the lack of truly powerful modern speed. What we should have is affordable, symmetrical gigabit service for all, in my view. And that’s the kind of thing that will make a backwater economy like Maine’s into a real leader and innovator in a vigorous economy. So our poles and wires are not just for electricity, as you stated, broadband connects to those poles too. Fiber is really the technology of the future in my view, it is larger future proof. The capacity of the fiber is still being understood. They’re developing new ways to deploy even more of the capacity of a single strand of fiber optic cable using each of the individual strands, using the different colors of the spectrum within those fibers, and it all travels at the speed of light. So municipal fiber networks, in my view, are incredibly important to the future. And this new entity, the Pine Tree Power Company, as a municipal, quasi municipal electric network, will be very friendly, almost genetically in its very makeup, to the concept of municipal ownership of broadband and can offer reduced cost for pole attachment, can be thoughtful about how we manage the poles and administer the poles. Attachment is a huge portion of the cost for any broadband provider, whether for profit or not for profit. If we can bring that pole attachment cost down, that will have a transformative effect. But we also really want to foster, as I mentioned, more municipal networks. And I’ve been working very hard as the co-chair of the broadband caucus to make that possible. We have a fund set up, we made some reforms to it, we recently got a lot of federal money. Communities across the country have received money, both at the municipal and the county level for which broadband is an eligible expenditure. So this is an incredibly opportune time to be talking about that.

And it’s not the same effort at this time, but these two efforts are really converging I think around what are the networks of our future going to look like? And they do come together, and I mentioned earlier the internet of things, they really come together there. There’s a need in managing an efficient and secure and environmentally sensitive energy network to have information flowing rapidly across the net so that dishwasher can come on when it’s advantageous for them to come on or not, so that heating and cooling systems can be controlled in an aggregated way. And there are massive implications around the security of our information, around the opportunity there to bring down cost add make for a more equitable transition around democratic governance and transparency and how those decisions are made. It is, I think, an uncertain future, but it’s clear where we’re heading, and we really need to make sure that that’s democratic governance as we do move in that direction. One last thing I’ll say is, as I mentioned, the utilities need to have communications infrastructure themselves. They are already stringing fiber on their poles for their own purposes to manage their own grids, and those fiber lines, as I mentioned, have incredible spare capacity, so there’s no reason that some of that capacity couldn’t be shared much more than it is today for the purpose of municipal fiber networks or other locally owned broadband utilities. So I’m very excited about that opportunity and I think we haven’t fully even begun to understand just where all the opportunities are there, but we know that there’s gold in them there hills.

John Farrell: Do you have any advice from the struggle to have a better electric utility in the legislation you’ve been working on, I was just thinking too about the way you were describing the history of the use of the ballot in Maine to bring about other progressive outcomes that are widely supported. And you mentioned a clean election bill, and as I was thinking about that, I was remembering recently that activists in Virginia and their advocacy work around clean energy had similarly used a pledge to get legislative candidates to pledge not to take money from the very utilities that they oversee through the legislature, these private companies. I guess one of the questions I have is just are you already insulated from that because of the kinds of election bill that you have? But then what other advice would you have for folks in other states how are probably confronting similar issues where they have these incumbent investor run utilities that are very large, they might be owned multi nationally, and maybe are not providing the best service or the best outcomes for their customers?
Seth Berry: That’s a great question, and my answer might be a little selfish here. But first, let me say about clean elections, yes, absolutely yes. I would not have run for legislature without clean elections and I don’t think that I would have been as able to really focus on what was right for the people of the state as opposed to what I could get away with and still get reelected. We’re not for the existence of our nationally leading clean election system. So there’s no question that clean elections here in Maine has made, not just me, but other legislators as well, much more capable of doing the right thing. And I think you saw that in the votes. The legislature, the majority got elected through the clean election system. No governor of Maine has yet been elected through the clean election system, it tends to fall down a little bit there and I don’t think that the governor vetoed it simply because she was looking for campaign donations, but I do think the power of the lobby in the executive branch in Maine has continued to be stronger than it is at the legislative level. So yes, clean elections matters. And Maine is in this incredibly unique place to prove the concept and to really change the game for the nation. I am absolutely convinced that if we can do it here in Maine, that it will be the shot heard around the world, that folks in other parts of the country will have a model that they can point to, as we did with rank choice voting, by pioneering that we’re now seeing many other parts of the country take that on and look to go in that direction. I think in general, there’s a perception right now, a misperception that consumer ownership of our utilities is impossible. In some cases, people have bought the idea that we can regulate our way to address transition. I don’t believe that’s true. In other cases, I think people are just tired and feel beaten down and feel like there’s not been a successful model where this is done.

And I want to offer some hope to folks that may feel that way. If you look at the six cities in the nation that arrived at 100% renewable electric first. Those six places were all served by consumer utilities. I can name them for you. Georgetown Texas, Greensburg Kansas, Burlington Vermont, Aspen Colorado, Kodiak Alaska and Rockport Missouri. Four of those, by the way, conservative areas, conservative communities that got to 100% renewable electricity first. And you know what John? This is going to blow your mind, all six of those are served by consumer owned utilities, all six. And what are the chances of that? As I mentioned COUs only serve one in three Americans, so the chances are pretty astronomical that all six of the first communities to get to 100% would be consumer run utilities. But there it is, those six were the first, all of them before 2016, by the way, before Trump was even elected. And look at large utilities, look at the nation’s leading large utility in the race to 100% renewables. It’s SMUD, it’s the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. And don’t you love that name, SMUD? It just has a ring to it. SMUD has seven elected board members, it has a pretty large service area, 1.5 million customers, many of them in rural parts outside of Sacramento, a couple different counties. They’re going to get to 100% renewables by 2030. And this isn’t a goal, this isn’t aspirational. They have a plan, they’re actually clear that they will get there. And that is the kind of game changing leadership that we need.

Now, SMUD and those other six communities I mentioned, they already had consumer ownership, they didn’t have to fight for it like we do. But if Maine can actually, first state since Nebraska in the 1930s, to actually change the whole business model of the state to 100% consumer owned utilities and through that to have democratic governance, to get to a just and rapid transition, we believe Maine can be the first state to get there with this business model, then I think that’s going to bring hope to others as well. We’re going down a path that is understood. These other communities have done it. But to do it with the change of a business model, to do it with an actual breakup of the rigged, regulatory monopoly system that we have now, and to take back our power, that is what we’re proposing to do here in Maine, we need support. Because I’m going to tell you right now, the Edison electric empire, there’s a large trade association called EEI, they’re very concerned. They’re watching, they’re listening to this podcast, they’re getting ready to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to oppose our effort. And we believe we can stand up to that. We’ve seen communities stand up to that kind of pressure before. I mentioned Winter Park Florida, Jefferson County Washington. This can be done, but on this scale, at this time, for all the reasons we’ve talked about, the stakes could not be higher and we really would love to have support from other parts of the country. If folks want to get in touch, they can go to and check it out. Sign up, donate. We’re going to need all of that and then some. Move to Maine, help us collect signatures. It’s a great place to live in the winter time. And what I hope for from others is that you can help us, yes, but also that we can help you. We really want to be an example and be, they talk about the states as the crucibles of democracy, opportunities to innovate and to try new policies and see what works. And we think that Maine can really be an important opportunity to learn and potentially to learn about a transformative path that more communities and states can take in the near future.

John Farrell: Well Seth, thank you so much for coming on and sharing the work that you’ve been doing in Maine and the importance of it in the broader anti-monopoly movement, but especially in the electricity sector where we’re trying to confront this large and significant problem of climate change, which you might want to be advertising people should move to Maine to stay cool in the summer as well as to have a pleasant winter.
Seth Berry: It’s warming up, it is definitely warming up. And I have to say, the pandemic has boosted Maine’s economy quite a bit, housing prices are through the roof, everybody’s moving out to the country. And Maine is seeing that in spades. But it really is a wonderful place all four seasons. I’m sure many of your listeners visited already, but I think it’s going to be a great place to keep on eye on in the months near to come.
John Farrell: Well, we will be keeping our eye on it. And thank you again so much for joining us Seth.
Seth Berry: All right John, thanks for all your great work.
John Farrell Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Local Energy Rules, with Rep. Seth Berry of Bowdoinham Maine, about the bill and ballot campaign to transform the state’s monopoly, investor-owned electric utilities to consumer ownership. On the show page, look for links to Our Power Maine, LD 1708, and the Supreme Court cases that set the standard for utility compensation. On ILSR’s website, you can also find several other interviews touching on utility monopoly power, including an interview utility antitrust policy with Jean Su in early 2021, a discussion of utility mergers with Scott Hempling in the summer of 2020, and a discussion of power plant securitization with Leslie Glustrom in January 2021.

Local Energy Rules is produced by myself and Maria McCoy, with editing provided by audio engineer Drew Birschbach. Lisa Gonzalez edited the original Building Local Power podcast. Tune back into Local Energy Rules every two weeks to hear more powerful stories of communities taking on concentrated power to transform the energy system. Until next time, keep your energy local, and thanks for listening.

Mainers Dissatisfied with their Electric Utilities

Most Mainers (people who live in Maine) are served by one of two investor-owned electric utilities: Central Maine Power or Versant Power. These two companies have “failed Maine,” says Berry. They have hiked up rates, dragged their heels on solar, and are two of the least reliable utilities in the nation. Central Maine Power, says Berry, has ranked last in customer satisfaction ratings for three years running. Versant Power is not much better, claiming the third-to-last place.

Berry believes these utilities are failing Maine because their decisions are made overseas. Iberdrola, a multinational corporation based in Spain, holds the majority share in Central Maine Power. Versant Power, formerly Emera Maine, was purchased by Enmax in 2020. Enmax is a Canadian corporation.

There’s no question that the people of Maine are fed up with these utilities and their poor performance. And I believe the people of Maine also understand what’s really driving it, which is some larger economic and governance issues

After learning about the success of Vermont utility Green Mountain Power, which is a certified B-corporation, Berry started thinking about what alternatives are out there.

Utility Monopolies are Too Big to Fail

Monopoly utilities have a sweet deal. They have cornered the market, leaving customers with no alternatives. They are selling an essential service. Lastly, they have a guaranteed return on their investments. This final point is crucial: it gives utilities the incentive to build things, regardless of need.

State regulators have some power to reign them in, but the regulatory process was invented by the utilities in the first place. In many places, the regulatory system is “rigged,” says Berry. Berry lists several tactics utilities use to avoid meaningful regulation: hiding the ball, lawyering up, threatening to sue, clever engineering, and clever work of the tax code. They also tend to rely on the myth of the regulatory compact.

There is an incredible consolidation that has happened in the industry… they’ve really got us right where they want us, and the only way we break free of that is to change the business model.

Pine Tree Power

Berry became interested in consumer-owned utilities because, as he describes, they are the point at which energy, equity, and democracy meet. He also found out that consumer-owned utilities in Maine have better rates (58% lower), better service, and are more reliable.

In the 2021 legislative session, Berry sponsored a bill (H.P 1269) to establish a consumer-owned utility called Pine Tree Power. This “municipal hybrid,” as proposed by the Legislature, would buy out Maine’s investor-owned utilities and pass the power to consumers.

Mainers, through their appointments to the board, could get more of what they want from a consumer-owned power provider. This includes better customer service, more renewable energy, and even using electric poles to install municipal broadband internet.

Read about how Local Control Clears the Path to a Clean Energy Future.

After it passed both houses of the Legislature, Maine’s governor vetoed the Pine Tree Power bill. Though it was a bipartisan effort, there was not enough support to override the veto. Still, Our Power Maine has hope for making Maine’s utilities consumer-owned.

Putting Consumer Ownership On the Ballot

In Maine, advocates can take proposed law straight to the voters through a ballot initiative. Direct democracy has a history of success in Maine. Through ballot initiatives, Mainers have established ranked choice voting, increased the minimum wage, and created a clean election system.

Thanks to Maine’s clean elections, in which candidates receive public funds if they refuse private election contributions, Berry says the legislature is “much more capable of doing the right thing.”

It has been nearly two decades since a community has municipalized its electric utility. Click here for a summary of municipalization attempts across the nation.

Our Power is collecting signatures and plans to bring Pine Tree Power to voters in November 2022.

We’re hopeful that we can bring this forward, again, directly to the people. And that’s where often the biggest, boldest changes in Maine history at least have happened. And we want to be a proving ground for this concept nationally. We hope that we can help to pave the way for others.

Episode Notes

See these resources for more behind the story:

For concrete examples of how towns and cities can take action toward gaining more control over their clean energy future, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.

Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.

This is the 140th episode of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.

Local Energy Rules is Produced by ILSR’s John Farrell and Maria McCoy. Audio engineering by Drew Birschbach.

This article originally posted at For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update

Featured Photo Credit: Tony Webster via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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Maria McCoy

Maria McCoy is a Researcher with the Energy Democracy Initiative. In this role, she contributes to blog posts, podcasts, video content, and interactive features.