Utility Millions Take Down Popular Measure — Episode 197 of Local Energy Rules

Date: 22 Nov 2023 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Utilities regularly spend millions of dollars to get their way. When their monopoly status is on the line, they pull out all of the stops.

For this episode of the Local Energy Rules Podcast, host John Farrell is joined by Lucy Hochschartner, Deputy Campaign Director for Pine Tree Power. They discuss how public power would have been an improvement over Maine’s investor-owned utilities, yet didn’t receive the support of Maine voters on November 7th.

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

Lucy Hochshartner: You are going to be getting better service, more affordably if the job of that utility is to protect customers rather than to exploit them. It seems so logical as to sometimes people are like, but how does that happen? You cut out the shareholder profits and that means that you can have fewer people getting disconnected.
John Farrell: What is it like to face down a $40 million advertising campaign by your utility company with the money coming from your own utility? Bill? Lucy Hochshartner, deputy campaign director for the Pine Tree Power Campaign, joined me in November, 2023 to discuss the recent ballot question in Maine and why 120,000 Maine voters wanted to fundamentally change who is in charge of their energy system, despite the utility spending. I’m John Farrell, director of the Energy Democracy Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and this is Local Energy Rules, a podcast about monopoly power, energy democracy, and how communities can take charge to transform the energy system. Lucy, thanks so much for joining me on Local Energy Rules.
Lucy Hochshartner: Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
John Farrell: So I would love to start, and I love asking folks this question, what motivated you to join this campaign? Did you have a background in clean energy or climate work?
Lucy Hochshartner: Yes, I did and really joined this campaign because of my background in utility work. I grew up in a very rural town on an educational farm as a kid and saw the climate crisis happening every day. I was a ski racer waiting for snow. I lived on a farm. The seasons were everything, and it just became so clear that the climate crisis from the time I was in middle school, I knew that that was what I wanted to work on and then really had a meandering route to actually working on utility issues. In college, I studied political science and environmental studies, thought I was going to work in something more cool than utilities, but what is cooler than utilities really. And then I ended up moving to Montana after college to be a professional biathlete, which is cross-country skiing and target shooting. So I ended up there, found myself in Montana, and it was covid.

I was just reaching out to candidates, being like, you need a young idealistic person to work for you. I’m your girl. And Montana is one of the few states that elects their public service commissioners. And so my first job out of college, outside of the few weeks I worked at Chipotle, was working as a campaigns coordinator for a local public service commission race. And that was when I first became aware of investor-owned utilities as a concept. I had taken a class and had a professor who just sort of offhand mentioned, everyone’s out here talking about these transformative climate policies, but no one’s showing up to PUC meetings and that’s the problem with today’s youth. And so it was like, oh, I’ll go work on one of those campaigns. And that was why I ended up reaching out to that candidate and worked on that race and then had done a lot of volunteer organizing with the Sunrise movement and a lot of other young people in Montana in our utility accountability coalition.

It was such an interesting time in Montana politics that was so polarized. A lot of groups started shifting to utilities because it was a point that was slightly less politicized than some other climate work was. And I was so excited to come work on public power because the more that I tried to work within the current system, the more I became convinced that it was not working. And I was meeting with our youth group, met with the CEO of our utility company in Montana, and we’re talking to them about their decarbonization plan or lack thereof – net zero, but keep investing in coal until 2042. And one of my friends asked the question, how can we trust you when you are saying one thing and doing another? And the CEO just said, well, we’re not asking you to trust us. And I was like, oh, oh really? Wow. And the more I thought about it, I was like, oh yeah, they’re not asking us to trust them. It’s not their job. And so I was so excited to work on this campaign for a utility that their job would be to serve the customers rather than the shareholders. That’s the fundamental flaw with investor-owned utilities is we talk about CMP or Versant, our utilities in Maine doing a bad job. The problem is that they don’t have the right job. Their job is not to provide clean, affordable, or reliable power, and that’s a huge issue.

John Farrell: I love so much of what you just shared in terms of the background in part just because I’ve been invited a couple of times by some groups out in Montana to give talks to their member organizations, and I remember talking to them about working on public power as well as a strategy to try to get some leverage in an environment that was very challenging to try to do stuff around climate. And I said, run public power campaigns in multiple cities. It’s like all the leverage you have and you can start bringing to people’s attention all of these questions about what are the problems with the utility system, which is a perfect pivot. I mean, you already offered this to me. About two weeks ago, Maine voters had the opportunity to vote for Pine Tree Power, so a consumer owned utility model. You already started to talk about this. In fact, you had such a beautiful anecdote here about how the utility responded to you about why would you expect you should trust us, but what were the problems in Maine that this initiative our power was trying to address?
Lucy Hochshartner: Yeah, Maine in many ways has the worst investor utilities in the country. There were a lot of issues we were trying to address. The cool thing is that public power addresses all of them because it’s about fundamentally shifting the incentive structure and the problems with our two utilities. So it’s Central Maine Power and Versant Power. You’ll hear me call them CMP and Versant. They made $187 million in profit last year in 2022. They came back this year to send out 94,000 disconnection notices. So that’s around one in 10 Maine households that got a disconnection notice. That doesn’t mean they ended up getting disconnected, means they had to go on a payment plan or get disconnected, a huge issue. They also came back to lobby against clean energy and climate action at the state legislature. They also have the most frequent outages of any state in the country is the service we’re getting here in Maine.

And CMP in particular, Versant not far behind, have the worst customer satisfaction ratings of utilities in the nation. And that’s largely because several years ago, CMP just mis-billed a hundred thousand people, and I just always find it helpful for things within national audience that might not sound like a lot of people if you live in a big populated place, but that is again, one in 10 Maine customers that is getting an outrageous bill from their utility company. And a lot of people really feel like that that was not resolved well. And there’s just a huge, all of those things to me when I was, I had thousands of conversations with voters. People do not trust these companies to be working for them.

John Farrell: Tell me a little bit about what the Pine Tree Power proposal was and how it would help address those problems. You touched on that very briefly there about sort of changing the incentives, but could you give a little more detail of what would’ve happened if people voted yes, and how would that structural change have taken place? What would be put in the place of these two investor-owned utilities?
Lucy Hochshartner: Yeah, so question three, which was on the Maine ballot, would’ve created the Pine Tree Power Company, and that’s what our Pine Tree Power campaign was trying to do was to get people to vote yes on question three would’ve created an essentially statewide consumer owned utility. And how we would’ve done that is we would have voted yes on question three, moved into a phase of board elections, so we would’ve actually had a say to bring in democracy to this process of how our utilities are run. So rather than having a board elected by the shareholders of Avangrid, CMPs parent company, a board elected just by rich people trying to make themselves more rich, we would’ve had a board elected by the people of Maine. They’d appoint six experts to serve alongside them, and that group, that board would then buy out CMP and Versant in a way that the economic analysis actually shows would save Maine money right from the beginning.

And that was because we already pay CMP and Versant. The crazy thing about utilities is that you’re paying based on what they own, that the value of the assets, it’s a rate based way of doing things. And so essentially we pay CMP and Versant over a billion dollars a year to rent the grid from these foreign corporations. What this shift would’ve done is moved it to a low cost mortgage, so it would’ve been financed with revenue bonds, not taxpayer money, not state debt revenue bonds of the company that allows Mainers to save right from the beginning and then 9 billion over 30 years while bringing back this local control and also having all future financing be far cheaper than what you get with an investor owned utility where you have to pay shareholders 8 to 12% back on all their investments. That’s all far cheaper with a revenue bond.

So as we’re talking about the climate crisis and a huge investment that’s needed to make our grid work, all of that would’ve been cheaper with Pine Tree Power and all of this would’ve had a say for customers. It would’ve changed it so the customers were the owners rather than the shareholders. So it actually would have, the job would be to work for customers, and there was a great list of company purposes in the legislation that talked about how this company would be needing to work toward electrification and lower prices and better reliability. That’s fundamental shift from the status quo, which is CMP and Versant’s only job. The only job they’ll ever have is to make money for their shareholders.

John Farrell: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, I ask Lucy how the Pine Tree Power campaign would address equity, what it felt like to be on the receiving end of a $40 million utility advertising blitz, what the silver linings are in the loss. You’re listening to a Local Energy Rules podcast with Lucy Hochshartner, deputy campaign director for the Pine Tree Power Campaign in Maine.

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John Farrell: Were there elements of the Pine Tree Power campaign or proposal that were aimed at addressing some of the disproportionate health and financial risks that there are in indigenous communities or communities of color?
Lucy Hochshartner: So often in our existing energy system, if you have privilege, often you just aren’t thinking about your utility. You put it on auto pay and it just comes out of your bank account. Maybe you’re not thinking about it every day. And so what Pine Tree Power would’ve done was been able to provide savings for these more marginalized communities who often are the people who are struggling most to pay these astronomical bills, would’ve provided savings. Also would’ve provided us with a voice in terms of we would be able to elect the board members that would be setting policies around things like what kind of legislation are we going to be advocating for? Are we going to be fighting against efforts to change disconnection policies, things like that. And that’s I think why we see overwhelmingly a really cool national poll, which maybe you can link to, just came out from Data for Progress. Public Power is hugely popular nationwide and is very popular specifically with more marginalized communities for those reasons of you are going to be getting better service, more affordably if the job of that utility is to protect customers rather than to exploit them.

It seems so logical as to sometimes people are like, but how does that happen? You cut out the shareholder profits and that means that you can have fewer people getting disconnected. You can be really planning as a company to change the way rates work. We would’ve been able to elect a board that could consider things like there was a really great vision that came out from the Pine Tree Power campaign. It was signed on by all our lead petitioners that were the folks who got it on the ballot in Maine, that one of the things that the Pine Tree Power Company could have done was implement payment as a percentage of income plan, which is a way to make utility rates far more just, and so rather than paying a fixed kilowatt hour rate, it’s done as a percentage of your income. And so lower income folks are not being overwhelmingly hit with these utility bills that they can’t afford.

John Farrell: I purposely buried the lead here in this conversation. I was interested in you outlining what was at stake. So the vote happened two weeks ago, and Mainers disappointingly from my perspective, opted for the status quo, but influenced in no small part by the incumbent utility spending $40 million to preserve their monopoly. What does it look like to be on the receiving end of a $40 million campaign by powerful investor-owned utilities?
Lucy Hochshartner: Oh my goodness. I’m so glad you asked. It is a wild time, let me tell you. I truly don’t know any other way to describe it. This was probably the craziest job I’ve ever had. And I think the other thing that is helpful to note with the spending is that it’s not just that it was $40 million, it’s that it was $40 million when we had just over a million dollars. They outspent us 37 to one. I think the other really important thing to note there is we were running a statewide campaign, which has a really high barrier of entry in terms of how much money you need to actually be able to talk to voters. So for instance, we never had even had, they spent 60 million, but we had 10 million, I think things would’ve looked very different because we never had enough money to get on television with our campaign.

And the other thing that was really unique was that generally campaigns are between two candidates or two ideas, really unique. To have a campaign that was just so purely between a giant corporation and their own customers, all of this money was coming from our utilities. It was not money that they raised. They essentially had an expense account. And so what that meant is that if you live in Maine, you are getting absolutely inundated by things in your mailbox, mailers, ads on the television, ads on social media, and if you were working on the campaign, it just meant no matter what you did, then there’s just this knowledge every day that there’s 10 of me they just had, rather than a Lucy, they had an entire DC consulting firm doing all the work that we were doing. And so that really had to shift the strategies that we could use.

And ours was an incredibly grassroots campaign because we had a very small staff and I was depending on volunteers for running canvases. We were depending on volunteers to also be donors. We had over 2,000 donors and they had just the utilities, which I think was always really intriguing as well was that I just don’t really know what their campaign did all day. They didn’t raise money, they didn’t talk to voters, they didn’t have volunteers. They really just had a lot of consulting firms spending a lot of money on basically advertising in every avenue imaginable. And then the less tracked spending, because we can’t track it, was at the same time the actual company, not the campaign front groups, were running quote ‘nonpolitical ads’ about just how great of a company CMP and Versant are. And that is something that they haven’t really done before. And so I would call it campaign spending, but it didn’t say Vote No on question three, and so isn’t tracked in the same way, was not officially campaign spending, didn’t run through their ballot action committee. And so truly just getting inundated on all sides.

John Farrell: I suppose you’ll find out in the next rate case how much they spent because they will come back hand in hand to get that money. And I wouldn’t be surprised if they asked to get it from rate payers and not from shareholders, which is after all it was advertising for the utility. I’m curious, in all of that fire hose of cash and advertising that they were doing to Mainers, what were some of the most persistent messages that you had to fight against? What were they saying? You covered upfront this business model is about shareholder benefit, your utility that are uniquely bad, that they have terrible customer service, they have really high rates. They bungled the bills of a hundred thousand customers. So what did they have to fight you with? What was it that they were saying to tell Mainers, no, no, no, we might be really problematic, but changing would be a terrible idea?
Lucy Hochshartner: It was so interesting to watch because never once did CMP or Versant come forward with how they were going to improve people’s lives. And as I was talking to folks throughout this campaign, people would be like, why isn’t that how they’re campaigning? I would vote for them if they just did better. And that was not the strategy, I think because there wasn’t a plan to do better. I mean, again, that’s the problem with investor-owned utilities is it’s just not their job. If they were asked their plan for the next 10 years and the only honest answer is to make more money for our shareholders, and people don’t want to hear that. So instead, all of this messaging was really fear-based. It was be scared of pine tree power, which was always funny for me because I’m about the least intimidating person out there.
John Farrell: You say that only because you’re not on video, Lucy, but I’m seeing it and I can tell.
Lucy Hochshartner: And I’m just terrifying. Yeah, not in the slightest. So the messages really boiled down to this is going to cost $13.5 billion. I’m happy to explain why that’s not true. That Pine Tree Power has no plan. Again, happy to explain why that is not true. Those we’re probably the two biggest and most persistent though right at the end there we started getting really crazy messaging around we don’t want politicians running our power, really around the fact that how dare we have a democratically elected board, just like to conveniently leave out that Avangrid’s board is also elected just by people you don’t have any say over. And so those ads were potentially the funniest and also most infuriating for me. Also, they would insinuate in the ads that we couldn’t have elected politicians because that was going to open it up to oil and gas interests — as if the giant corporations that own our utility have no relationship to oil and gas.
John Farrell: One of the things I thought was sort of a silver lining in the campaign was that there was another issue on the ballot that Mainers gave a resounding yes vote to which prohibits foreign owned companies from spending on ballot measure campaigns. Yes. Was that by any chance related?
Lucy Hochshartner: It certainly was, though it was not brought forward by all the same people. It wasn’t something I was campaigning around. It was not something that I talked about with voters a whole lot just because mainly I was answering people’s questions around question three, but certainly the reason, my understanding of why folks put that on the ballot was that this is now not the only thing we’ve seen our utilities dump huge amounts of money into. This was the other funny thing about the politicians line that they had is CMP and Versant are the biggest political actors in the state of Maine. They’ve dumped hundreds of millions of dollars into our elections into lobbying at the state legislature. They’re incredibly political, and that has not been well received by the people of Maine. Why would it be? I don’t think people anywhere appreciate the feeling of being bought, particularly not by a company that is a monopoly. The fact that they have to buy their own customers when they have captive customers really shows you just how bad the situation has gone. And so that was exciting to see past. And if that spending that they were able to do was removed, I think we would’ve seen really different outcomes.
John Farrell: Yeah, I guess that was one of my questions with that is now that that has passed, do you have any sense, I mean it sounded like there was the $40 million that was above board that was registered political spending. They also did some advertising that was not technically political spending, which I guess they’d get to continue doing if I understand the ballot measure. But is it your understanding that that 40 million amount would be substantially reduced in terms of what they would be allowed to spend if this issue came on the ballot?
Lucy Hochshartner: I am not a lawyer or policy expert on question two. To me, my understanding is that it’s really going to come down to implementation and enforcement, but certainly that’s the idea that these are both foreign owned corporations and they should not be able to be spending money in our elections.
John Farrell: So we found that with other campaigns focused on restoring local ownership of utilities that sometimes the votes fail. And our public power series we did last year on this podcast, there were sadly several failures to talk about in terms of ballot, but there were also, I think, really interesting stories about progress that was made on the issues that drove the campaigns, whether it was local control or getting more money to help address climate change in some cases like Boulder, Colorado, even getting really concrete requirements for the utility to meet clean energy goals that are tied to the franchise contract that the city has with that investor owned utility. So I’m curious if you think there are ways that Mainers will be well-served by the Pine Tree Power effort even though it didn’t pass during the election two weeks ago?
Lucy Hochshartner: Yeah, I think so. I mean, first off, I think it was a huge achievement for Mainers to get consumer owned utilities on a statewide ballot. That was cool, that was exciting, and that gave a lot of people hope. And it is no small thing that over 120,000 people voted for that — a third of the electorate essentially, almost a third, without there ever being an ad on television. That’s a huge thing. And those people aren’t going anywhere. Those people are people who support consumer owned utilities despite 37 to one spending against them. They are hardcore supporters and those are the people our movement is made up of. And that’s a huge base of people that I’m really excited to see what they’re going to do next. And we’re having those conversations right now in terms of what the most logical next steps are in terms of things we can be demanding from our utility.

And I think it will come down to a mix of immediate relief for people with these very real problems with their utilities. I was talking to people who were disconnected that they need their power turned back on. That’s a very concrete, immediate thing. Was talking to even high schoolers who can’t vote yet, who were volunteering on this initiative, who need a utility to be working on climate action. That is an immediate thing that we need as well, combined with this recognition that we also need to more fundamentally shift how we think our utilities and shift toward a model that is really prioritizing customers. And I think holding those reforms and systemic solutions as we move forward are going to be important. But the biggest thing that I see us as having one is that we have a lot more people in Maine who are educated about utilities than perhaps anywhere in the country.

We were talking to thousands of people over the course of this campaign in a way that is pretty unique to statewide ballot initiative campaigns. You’re just able to, even though we weren’t able to talk to the number of people we needed to, we still had thousands of conversations, had ads on digital, not television, had some mailers. That is more than most people hear about utilities anywhere else in the country, like ever. And so that is a huge group of people that is really motivated to be demanding better service on a whole variety of fronts from our utilities. And that education work is something that no matter how much money the utilities spend, they can’t ever take away. And that’s because these are all people with real stories of how their utilities are not serving them. And I think that that’s a big win no matter what.

As for what concrete thing will come out of it, I just don’t think we’re far enough along to know yet. But it’s certainly something I’m motivated to keep doing. I have been really intrigued just over the course of this campaign. I came here fully because of the climate aspects of this bill. I need a utility that works for my climate future, and that’s not investor-owned utilities. It’s not their job, it’s not their job anywhere in the country. It’s really not their job in Maine. But over the course of the campaign, I had so many conversations with people dealing with very immediate health impacts and disconnections. That’s something I’m really motivated to work on in the future too. And so even I running this campaign have learned so much over the course of this campaign. And I think that that learning and also the connections, our campaign really connected, not along partisan lines at all, really had a huge base of support that we were drawing from that really was just people who were most affected by utility issues, which is everyone from young progressive people in Portland who want more climate action to Trump supporting people who’ve been disconnected, who hate their utility for a whole different set of reasons.

And we were able to work together and those relationships are really cool and will last moving forward as well.

John Farrell: That’s wonderful. Do you have any sort of data actually about that split the way in which you cut across partisan lines?
Lucy Hochshartner: I think probably the best data point I have around that is that, so if you know something about if you’ve ever worked on a campaign, even if you haven’t basically on virtually no campaign, can you talk to every voter? So most campaigns, whether they’re partisan issue, whatever are targeting in some way, who they’re door knocking, who they’re sending mail to, et cetera. Our targeting was really difficult. And so I have less great data about who our volunteers were and better data on, just anecdotally, it was really hard to know who to talk to because it cuts along such a broad line. When I was working for candidates, you get a partisan score and you can know that if you’re talking to someone with a pretty left partisan score, it’s probability, it’s not a guarantee, but they’re almost certainly going to be a Democrat. It’s almost certainly going to be a supporter of your democratic candidate.

Totally different with utility issues. We actually didn’t use the partisan score for our targeting at all because it was not the most effective. And it was really hard to know who to talk to throughout the campaign, which was difficult, but also cool because it meant that we were reaching a whole new group and base and coalition that didn’t exist yet. It wasn’t something that people had data on. So we were essentially creating that data in real time. And our strategy really had to be around how do we identify who our supporters are so that we can then talk to them.

John Farrell: Yeah, that’s amazing. Thinking about having to build that as you go along, and the legacy of doing the campaign of course is that you’ve connected with that broad base of folks. Kind of in that spirit, in terms of the lessons learned there, what advice would you give for other folks? Folks in many different places, I talk to them often, San Diego, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Chicago, Illinois, folks in North Carolina in many different states, people are trying to do the same kind of battle maybe at a local level in a city, maybe some people are looking at doing it at a broader level. What advice do you have for folks who are going up against these large utility corporations and campaigning for public power?
Lucy Hochshartner: One of the biggest joys for me of this campaign has been getting to talk to some of these very same folks who are doing this. It could often feel like a pretty lonely battle in Maine with every consulting firm being bought up, utility companies. And so having, we had a lot of volunteers, but in terms of other people, organizers doing this work, a lot of them were bought over to the other side. And so it was cool to have this growing national movement and coalition. And I guess the first piece of advice is take all of my advice with a grain of salt because you all know your local conditions better than I do. But the second thing would be to really repeatedly ground yourself in, you are doing the right thing. This is a system that does not work, and at some point, whether it is today, tomorrow, 10 years from now, 50 years from now, it’s going to have to end.

It just doesn’t work. It is not meant to serve customers. And in Maine, that wasn’t two weeks ago, but I don’t think it’ll be anytime in the really near future, but it’s coming. It just is going to take time to build from the 30% of the vote we got to the 51%, but we are doing the right thing. And there’s a lot of people out there who are going to try and make you forget that because they’re getting paid to make you forget that. And then the second thing would just be to really think creatively because no one knows how to do this. This is such a new fight that we’re in against these huge utility corporations that a lot of people haven’t done it before. And it’s not like running a traditional campaign and you’re not using the same targeting. And we were doing a lot of things for the first time and figuring it out.

And we had a very young campaign, for reference, I’m 26. We were just trying to figure it out as we went along. And so it’s helpful to both be willing to do things differently. And I think often when we were doing things differently was some of our most effective moments, like the fact that we were deep canvassing rather than just knocking on doors, telling people to vote for Pine Tree Power, that wouldn’t have worked. We had to have these long conversations persuading people, but also knowing when you can reach out and learn from others. And I think the most important thing for me was finding really great advisors along the way who could provide support emotionally, strategically, monetarily, find the people who are going to help you out. For anyone listening to this, I’m always happy to chat. And I think the last thing is just from Maine’s experience very specifically, I think as a movement, we need to figure out how to fund this work, and that is something that is going to be on all of us to do and was just always going to be the struggle with a statewide initiative just because the floor for how much money you need is so high, and we just didn’t have enough.

I have no doubt that if we were able to talk to every voter in Maine, we would’ve won. It’s just there was never a world that we were going to be able to talk to every voter in Maine because we just didn’t have the money. And so figuring that out first, as lovely as it is to get so caught up in the, I’m doing the right thing, we’re building a movement. This is so exciting. At some point you do just need to nail down how are you going to fund it, and it’s less exciting, but a crucial step nonetheless.

John Farrell: It’s really striking that utilities are allowed to spend the money they get from customers who have to pay them. The thing that always bothers me about these campaigns so much is this, and you kind of alluded this earlier, right, about the monopoly advertising for itself, but the reason they have a monopoly is not because they were Google or somebody and had a really good product that everybody liked, and then they bought out their competitors and elbowed their way to the top. It’s that 120 years ago, they were the biggest game in town, and they cut a deal with legislators in the state of Maine to become the monopoly incumbent. We thought that was a good deal and it was a good idea. And now that they’re there and they have that power of incumbency and they have the ability to say, if you want electricity in Maine, you’ll buy it from us, and then they can use that money. And it’s like, I know that there are these accounting tricks. I think the thing that is most disappointing about becoming an expert in utility stuff is realizing that utilities are allowed to do these sort of accounting tricks and say, well, that’s shareholder money. That’s where this came from.
Lucy Hochshartner: Yes. Oh my goodness, this is hitting home so much, John.
John Farrell: I mean, yeah, you said they earned 187 million in profits in 2022, so the 40 million that they spent, they’re like, oh, yeah, that’s a quarter of what we earned last year. But it’s like you paid for that. Every Maine voter that voted yes or no helped pay for that $40 million. How many dollars on every monthly bill was it that they spent in order of that company could tell them how to vote and why not to vote them out despite their performance? I don’t know that I’m ever going to be able to get over that.
Lucy Hochshartner: And you shouldn’t get over that. You should stay angry. I think that that’s something that our campaign team was really reflecting on. Even Tuesday night night as the results were coming in, we’re right to be angry. It’s ridiculous. And the whole shareholder versus rate payer money, the accounting tricks happening there because Maine does have laws that prevent our utilities from using rate payer money to do political spending, so it’s not going to show up in a rate case, but where’s the shareholder money coming from if not to get returns from the rate payers? And so we ended up talking about that in a lot of different ways, but I guess in terms of one positive, that was something that really hit home with Maine voters, whether they voted for us or not, that was something that people realized. I would knock on people’s doors and ask how they were feeling about the situation. No one approved of the amount of money being spent by their utility company in this election, that does not win fans.
John Farrell: Yeah. Well, like you said, I think one note of optimism that I will take away from having watched what happened in Maine is like you said, those 120,000 Mainers who experienced that overcame all of that $40 million fire hose of telling them not to and still voted yes.
Lucy Hochshartner: That is an incredible thing. Yeah. I think that sometimes people miss that, and I think the reason sometimes people miss that is I just don’t know if our brains are even prepared, or our media or how we talk about elections is prepared for being outspent 37 to one. Because typically when we’re talking about being outspent in a candidate race where there are contribution limits, we’re like, oh, no, they got outspent two to one, and this 37 to one is just something that we really, I think aren’t even, it’s hard to grasp how much money that is. So the fact that even still almost a third of voters we’re like, yeah, this system isn’t working, is huge, and I’m not going to pretend it’s a success. We wanted to win. People needed us to win. People who are getting disconnected, people who want to come in the future needed us to win, but it’s definitely a silver lining.
John Farrell: It is also, I think, worth noting just here to wrap up that 37 to one or 40 to one is considerably more than most other public power campaigns face. I’ve found in a lot of the interviews that I’ve done, getting out spent 10 to one is pretty common. And so the sheer volume of money that was spent here and the amount even, I mean, to raise a million dollars for a public power campaign is extraordinary. And so to be outspent that badly, I think really points to you struck a nerve. It’s great that you’re out there activating so many people to understand why this is a problem, and I think that 37 to one will be one of those things that helps stick in people’s brains for sure.
Lucy Hochshartner: Totally. Yeah. I mean, my biggest hope is that this is something that continues not just in Maine but around the country. And even if we weren’t able to win, I hope that all of the things that we learned and all of the relationships we built and attention we got just for being a statewide campaign, for being a new thing, I think we got a lot more press than potentially some municipal public power campaigns have gotten in the past. And I really hope that that only helps this grow more because I want nothing more than just to be the stick in investor owned utility sides that never leaves. That is the dream.
John Farrell: You and me both. Lucy, thank you so much for taking the time to come on Local Energy Rules and to talk about the Pine Tree Power campaign. I know the outcome was not what you wanted, but we really appreciate you sharing what the experience was like, and I think it gives some hope for folks who are also doing this work in many other places.
Lucy Hochshartner: Thank you so much for having me. This is so fun. A group of people that just wants to talk about public power, the best kinds of nerds.
John Farrell: Yeah. If you listen to this podcast and you are interested in doing public power work, you can contact us at ilsr, Reach out to maria@ilsr.org. You have an ongoing call of public power advocates to talk about lessons learned and whatnot. If you have a utility email address, don’t bother. But if you are somebody who cares about this for your community’s sake, reach out. Yeah. Lucy, thanks again. It was great to talk to you, and thanks for all your work.
Lucy Hochshartner: Yeah, thank you.
John Farrell: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Local Energy Rules with Lucy Hochshartner, Deputy Campaign director for the Pine Tree Power Campaign in Maine. On the show page, look for a link to the Data for Progress national Poll on Public Power, as well as the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s six part public power podcast series. Also on the Local Energy Rules podcast, you can find many more interviews with the leaders of public power campaigns from California to Colorado to Iowa. Local Energy Rules is produced by myself and Maria McCoy with editing provided by audio engineer Drew Birschbach. Tune back into Local Energy Rules every two weeks to hear how we can take on concentrated power to transform the energy system. Until next time, keep your energy local and thanks for listening.


Maine’s Ballot Initiative for Public Power

Maine residents have long been unhappy with electric utilities Central Maine Power (CMP) and Versant. Hochschartner explains why: frequent power outages, poor customer service, and an error by CMP in its billing of 100,000 customers. Plus, although these companies made $187 million in profit in 2022, one in ten Maine households received disconnection notices that same year.

Hochschartner believes that public power — a utility owned by the consumers — addresses all of these shortcomings. Our Power Maine’s proposal to create the Pine Tree Power Company would give Maine residents a voice through directly electing members to the utility board. The campaign also projects immediate savings upon takeover, since the utility would be not-for-profit, would have a mortgage on the infrastructure rather than renting it, and can more affordably finance grid improvements as a public entity.

All of that would’ve been cheaper with Pine Tree Power… It would’ve changed it so the customers were the owners rather than the shareholders…That’s a fundamental shift from the status quo, which is CMP and Versant’s only job, the only job they’ll ever have, is to make money for their shareholders.

The Pine Tree Power proposal was put to Maine voters as ballot question three on November 7, 2023, but failed to pass.

Why Did Pine Tree Power Come Up Short?

According to a recent poll, 68 percent of likely voters nationwide support public power. The result in Maine, however, was the opposite: only 30 percent of voters selected yes on question three, while 70 percent voted no.

The Maine result came down to campaign spending. The utilities poured 40 million dollars into their campaign to maintain the status quo, outspending Pine Tree Power by a factor of 37 to 1. Hochschartner describes how Pine Tree Power never raised enough money to buy a television advertisement. At the same time, voters were bombarded with utility advertising and mailers. While Our Power Maine volunteers talked with voters about the benefits of public power, the utilities spread fear of change and manufactured statistics.

I don’t think people anywhere appreciate the feeling of being bought, particularly not by a company that is a monopoly. The fact that they have to buy their own customers when they have captive customers really shows you just how bad the situation has gone.

Finding the Silver Linings

Through her disappointment with the ballot question’s result, Hochschartner is proud that Maine got statewide consumer-ownership on the ballot in the first place. Our Power Maine put down the foundations for a public power coalition that crosses the political spectrum.

That education work is something that no matter how much money the utilities spend, they can’t ever take away. And that’s because these are all people with real stories of how their utilities are not serving them. And I think that that’s a big win no matter what.

As for what’s next, Hochschartner hopes to work on immediate relief for Maine residents struggling to pay their energy bills and continue to work toward a utility model that prioritizes customers.

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 197th episode of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares stories of communities taking on concentrated power to transform the energy system.

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

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

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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.