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Young Mainers will be inheriting the grid – we would like to own it

Emily Rochford is a resident of Burnham and a core member of Maine Youth for Climate Justice, a coalition of over 350 youth. She is pursuing a bachelor of science degree in sustainable energy management at Unity College. This editorial was originally published in the Portland Press Herald on June 27, 2021 and is republished here by permission of the author.

Our electric grid is quickly becoming the most critical infrastructure in our society. As residents and businesses move away from fossil fuels to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, we will depend more and more on the ability to access reliable, clean, affordable electricity. This will require significant investments in our grid, investments that we young Mainers will inherit.

We would like to help steer these investments, and we would like to own them.

L.D. 1708, An Act to Create the Pine Tree Power Company, would accomplish just that. Before the Legislature right now, this bill would give Mainers an opportunity to replace investor-owned Central Maine Power and Versant Power with a consumer-owned, nonprofit Pine Tree Power Co., run by an independently elected board.

This bill is the product of years of input and analysis and fueled in part by decades of failures by investor-owned utilities operating in Maine. CMP and Versant consistently rank among the lowest in the country for reliability and customer satisfaction. This is not because Maine winters are particularly bad – many states face challenging weather – or because Mainers like to complain about CMP any more than utility customers in other states do. It is a direct result of underinvestment and corporate neglect of our key infrastructure.

If we’re going to increasingly rely on electricity for our basic needs in the future, it’s clear that our ownership model needs to change.

Reaching 100 percent renewable energy in the near future is just not possible in Maine without a consumer-owned utility. CMP and Versant have proven themselves unwilling, incapable and obstructionist partners in renewable energy.

Consumer-owned utilities, on the other hand, have led the charge to renewable energy nationwide. The first six communities in the U.S. to reach 100 percent renewable energy have all been consumer-owned utilities. Other consumer-owned utilities throughout the U.S. are decades ahead of Maine in their renewable-energy goals.

Our profit-driven utilities have also often left our state’s most vulnerable behind. CMP sent thousands of Mainers, many living on fixed incomes, threatening and illegal winter disconnection notices in 2020. Because of billing system malfunctions, customers have wrongly been charged hundreds of dollars. Consumer-ownership under L.D. 1708 is a model that will look after the needs of Maine ratepayers first, instead of investors’ bottom line. The result of this change is a measure of energy justice for Maine people.

While it is natural to fear change, the reality in Maine is that staying with CMP and Versant would present the highest risk. It would mean keeping our high rates, low reliability and poor customer satisfaction, as well as putting our climate goals in jeopardy. Claims that rates would increase and reliability decrease under consumer ownership are baseless scare tactics. L.D. 1708 requires lowering rates and improving reliability. And local control of our electric utility would let us choose those who lead it.

Young people like me represent a small portion of our decision-makers and political leaders, but we deserve to have a choice. We will be forced to live with the decisions made in Augusta today and will need bold action to ensure the sustainability of our futures. We look forward to becoming customer-owners of our electric utility soon and to a serious shift away from poorly run corporate ownership to conscientious climate-driven consumer ownership.

We cannot afford to continue trying to force Maine’s past investor-owned model to do something it was never meant to do: Put Mainers first. It is time for us to take charge of our electric grid and take control of our energy future.

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