Republished here by permission of the author. Appeared originally as an Op-Ed in the Portland Press Herald on December 30, 2022
Owning a small business in Maine is both challenging and rewarding. It takes a lot of work and perseverance to build up a successful operation here and I’m proud to be a successful part of Maine’s small business community–the backbone of our state’s economy.
Many of the challenges we face are things beyond our control that can make or break a business. Like electricity. If the power goes out in my shop we can’t work (but payroll and other expenses don’t stop). And like most Mainers, we can’t pick and choose our electricity provider—there’s only one option depending on your location.
A few years ago I moved my custom woodworking business from Kennebunk to Sanford. In Kennebunk our power was provided by Kennebunk Light & Power, one of several nonprofit utilities in Maine owned by its customers. The new location in Sanford was serviced by Central Maine Power, an investor-owned corporate utility. It was quite a jolt (pun intended) when we saw our electric bills jump 250% even though our power use stayed constant.
But CMP wasn’t just charging us a whole lot more. They were also unbelievably inept when it came to basic operations like billing or upgrading our service. Getting a new 400 amp 3-phase service installed in the building we purchased took well over a year and countless phone calls. And then we got a bill that charged us over $11,000 for one day of power! That took several more phone calls to resolve—turns out the correct bill was $36.
All the time spent sorting out CMP’s mistakes and delays costs my business money on top of the exorbitant rates. In a competitive market, customers like me would be free to choose a better electricity provider. But of course we don’t have that choice—we’re stuck with CMP.
Given my experience, it doesn’t surprise me that in a national survey of businesses, CMP’s customer satisfaction rating was lower that any other electric utility in the entire country! As CMP’s profits have soared in recent years—now approaching $200 million per year—so too has their service declined. But because they enjoy a protected monopoly with captive customers and guaranteed profits, they’ve taken full advantage of that privilege by cutting expenses and raising rates.
There’s no question that CMP is an albatross around the neck of Maine’s business economy (as well as Maine’s residential households, but that’s a topic for another column). As CMP rakes in over half a million dollars in profit each and every day, Maine businesses have to dig deeper in their pockets and tighten their belts to keep the lights on. On top of that, Mainers endure more frequent power outages than any other state while second only to Florida in average outage duration. All that downtime means lost revenue.
It doesn’t have to be this bad. Areas of Maine served by consumer-owned nonprofit utilities, like Houlton, attract new businesses and encourage further investment by existing businesses, such as LP’s $400 million expansion. Having reliable power delivered at reasonable rates by a company that cares about customer service makes all the difference. Unfortunately, the opposite is true: CMP’s poor reputation is a major disincentive to investment in the company’s large service region.
It’s long past time for Maine to improve this situation. That’s why I’m supporting the Pine Tree Power proposal to replace CMP and Versant with a nonprofit consumer-owned utility. It’s not just that it would save businesses like mine a lot of money, it would also give me and all the other customers a say in how the utility is run. Instead of decisions being made in a boardroom in Connecticut or Spain in order to maximize CMP’s quarterly returns and share price, decisions would be made right here in Maine by us, for our benefit.
Contact your legislators and tell them you support Pine Tree Power, then next November vote yes on the Pine Tree Power citizen initiative. And to learn more about Pine Tree Power, visit https://ourpowermaine.org.