(Photo by Lance Tapley)
(Photo by Lance Tapley)
The May 14 hearing on the bill, LD 1646, to have the state government take over our two big electric utilities, Central Maine Power Co. and Emera Maine, produced a predictable flurry of news, with the proposal’s pros and cons fiercely debated.

Here are three perspectives on the issue that are not getting much attention:

Given that human-caused global warming is probably the biggest threat to humankind (not to mention the rest of life), shouldn’t we choose public power based on whether it’s an opportunity to combat global warming?

In a phone interview from Washington, D.C., S. David Freeman, probably the nation’s leading public-power expert, suggested that one way a Maine public-owned energy authority could take the state into a green future is to provide and own the batteries in electric cars.

If this were done, the car’s cost would be dramatically reduced. Today the average price of the four most popular electric cars is $48,000, after subtracting federal subsidies. Batteries are among their most expensive components, costing $5,000 to $15,000. The total operating cost of an electric car is already comparable to a gasoline-powered one; its “fuel” and repairs (no internal-combustion engine) are much less expensive. Subtracting the cost of the batteries would make electric cars as cheap or cheaper to purchase than fossil-fuel-powered cars. That would amount to a revolution.

There’s something big in this, too, for the utility. “If you’re an electric company today,” Freeman said, “you’re going to need storage for . . . solar and wind.”

Those renewable energy sources produce power intermittently—when the sun shines and the wind blows. Electric-car batteries, plugged into the grid at home, would become part of that storage system, the grid charging and discharging the batteries as needed.

This network would constitute what is known as a “distributed” energy-storage system, much the way thousands of computers today can be involved in a single, big computing task. Cars would be available to store energy because “95 percent of the time,” Freeman said, they’re not being used.

The batteries’ cost could be spread over all the utility customers’ electric bills, but it would amount to a “trivial” increase, Freeman believes, with hundreds of thousands of customers. And car owners could make money selling electricity back to the power network at peak-use times.

This is not fantasy. Some Nissan Leaf owners in Britain are already in a trial project of energy storage and sales back to the grid.

If public power embraced such technology, it “could usher in a new era,” Freeman said.

There would have to be a corresponding rapid build-out of charging stations for when electric cars travel long distances from home, which the power authority also could do. Freeman, who was Deputy Mayor for Energy and the Environment of Los Angeles and ran its Department of Water and Power, set up the first electric-car charging stations in the city. It was cheap to do, he said. “It’s not like building a nuclear power plant!”

Freeman probably qualifies as “Mr. Public Power.” He’s also the former head of the New York Power Authority and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the largest public-power agency in the country, which has 10 million customers. At the TVA, Freeman ran what was the largest energy-efficiency project in the nation, saving the equivalent of a nuclear plant’s energy production for a half-million people.

He has written — among other books — “An All-Electric America: A Climate Solution and the Hopeful Future,” coauthored in 2016 with Leah Parks. “Few are more qualified to lead the way than David Freeman” on energy issues, former President Jimmy Carter has written.

Transportation accounts for 28 percent of American energy use. If Maine transformed its part of this sector as Freeman described, it “could become the showplace for the entire world,” he said.

And the car-battery idea is “just an example of what a public-owned utility can do” to have Maine go green, Freeman emphasized.

The basic idea of going green has broad support. Rep. Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham), sponsor of LD 1646, believes, “We can only decarbonize society through electricity.”

On an information sheet for the bill, he promotes “a smarter, greener grid.” Answering only to Maine people, public power would “allow greater investment in renewables and efficiency and a more rapid adoption of electrification of heating, cooling, and transportation.”

But Berry’s chief foe, CMP, claims it’s already on the green bandwagon. “Every day we work to connect solar energy to the grid,” said Catharine Hartnett, CMP’s spokesperson. The utility recently testified in favor of another bill, LD 1494, which would increase the percentage of electricity in the state that must come from new renewable sources from 10 percent to 50 percent by 2030.

Public or private? To continue the focus here on transportation, which route would be the surest, fastest way to have electric cars replace our gasoline-powered polluters and help drive us to a future we can endure and maybe even enjoy? Before you decide, please read on.

Public power doesn’t necessarily mean green power

Berry has promoted LD 1646, An Act To Restore Local Ownership and Control of Maine’s Power Delivery Systems, as green legislation, but there’s nothing in the bill requiring the public-power authority to promote renewable energy or conserve and demote fossil-fuel-generated power. In the bill’s language its purposes are given only as “reliable electric transmission and distribution services at the lowest possible cost.”

In recounting public power’s history, Freeman pointed to an important fact about the TVA and other big public-power enterprises created under the New Deal: “Their mantra was low-cost electricity.” But public power did not pay attention when the environmental movement arrived.

It “was worse than the private companies” in creating air pollution. The TVA and other public-power entities went big into coal and nuclear. Freeman spent much of his career trying to turn the large agencies he ran toward conservation and alternative energy.

But now, with the climate crisis, he feels a big opportunity exists for public power to seize environmental leadership in the utility industry.

That’s because “people could have a voice” in public power. They “could get control of their energy,” as opposed to it being controlled in faraway executive boardrooms with profit necessarily the major consideration. With the ultimate control of CMP in Spain, he said, “The issue is sharp and clear.”

Freeman agreed that public power generally is cheaper than private power—which its Maine advocates push as the major point in its favor—but now it can be both “green and cheap.”

Given the history of Maine politics, however, it’s possible to see a governor and Legislature installing members of a Maine Power Delivery Authority board who would at best give lip service to renewable energy.

Although it’s plainly part of his intentions, Berry, House chair of the Energy Committee, hasn’t offered—even in his testimony at the bill’s public hearing—specific plans to ensure that public power would take the state in the green direction.

The bill’s proponents among the citizenry, however, seem to yearn for more of this argument. “Ironically, this is the biggest climate bill of the session,” said Robert Levin, a Portland attorney who arrived outside LD 1646’s hearing room with a few other public-power advocates and a big banner proclaiming, “Bye CMP, Hello Local Control.”

Levin said he realized that with LD 1646 there would be “no guarantees” that a politically appointed public-power board would encourage policies to combat climate change, but he felt there wasn’t any chance with CMP, given what he said was its “obstruction” of previous bills promoting solar power. (Hartnett responded to this criticism by saying the company’s objections to the legislation had to do with “fairness” issues toward non-solar customers.)

Possibly, promoting public power in Maine as the way to ignite a statewide alternative-energy and conservation revolution could excite citizens about setting up the political apparatus to do so.

What are the chances of that taking place? What are the chances, as it is, for the current public-power bill succeeding?

As usual, insiders versus outsiders

Even if it wouldn’t be a green-power revolution, taking over CMP and Emera Maine would be a revolutionary act. Government officials and the powerful people they pay attention to don’t look kindly on revolutions, even one that might prevent their great-grandchildren from being cooked—or, to put it less dramatically, that might allow them to live in a Maine that would look recognizable to us.

As is always the case on important moves challenging the economic status quo, both in the public-power bill’s hearing room and in conversations in the lobby outside, the heavily represented “insiders,” the “establishment,” the “suits” of all stripes, Democrats as well as Republicans—as opposed to the frustrated outsiders milling around—either resisted the bill outright or brought up numerous technicalities they said the bill ignored.

Or they called for a study of the subject, as Barry Hobbins, the state government’s “public advocate” on utility matters, did. A study is often a gentle way to kill a bill.

What happens if the bill fails in the Legislature? “If a referendum is needed, it will happen,” Berry has said.

When public power is up for a vote, cheaper power is usually what supporters push. Peter Kelly recalls that “high electric rates” were the big issue in Maine in 1973, when a citizens-initiated proposal to have the state take over the electric companies was on the ballot. At that time, CMP as well as Emera Maine’s major predecessor, Bangor Hydro Electric, were both generators and distributors of electricity.

“Kilowatt” Kelly, as he was affectionately known in the ’70s, led the pro-public-power campaign. Now retired in Old Orchard Beach and Florida, in 1973 he was a lawyer and Democratic state senator from Caribou. The remedy touted for the high electric bills of the time, he said, was “cutting out a certain amount of profit” the companies enjoyed.

But the argument didn’t work. The public voted against it 61 to 39 percent. A referendum is often a contest of television advertising. Kelly said the referendum was defeated because the pro-public-power people had “very little money” and were “swamped” by the utilities’ TV ads.

Although there’s a Facebook “group,” CMP Ratepayers Unite, of thousands of people unhappy with CMP, no significant grassroots organization has emerged to work for the bill. That would be essential for the signature-gathering phase of a referendum campaign and to counter utility advertising.

As in 1973, Maine, like the other New England states, continues to have irritatingly high electric bills compared to the rest of the country. CMP’s Harnett counters by pointing out that our state’s rates are the lowest in the region, but proponents emphasize that public power, generally, is significantly less expensive than private power.

CMP has managed recently to irritate its customers in other ways. Prime example: its now-notorious billing snafus. The public-hearing testimony featured citizens complaining about absurd charges. One bill cited was for $11,094.78 instead of the correct charge of $36.

And then there are the power-outage snafus: In 2017, as a Maine Public story reported, citing federal data, Maine’s electricity customers experienced longer, more persistent outages than in any other state. (Hartnett blames more intense storms and “tree limbs and trees falling” in our heavily forested region. A clash of cymbals here, please, to acknowledge climate change.)

CMP’s proposed hydroelectric corridor through the North Woods, which is highly unpopular, may also be working against the company on the public-power issue. (See the two recent Deep State columns on this subject in the freepressonline.com archives.)

On the other hand, Berry and proponents face considerable forces working against the proposal.

“You’re up against all the money in the world,” is the way Freeman described one inevitability. In just the first quarter of this year alone, Iberdrola reported a profit of $1.1 billion. Its American unit Avangrid, which directly owns CMP, made $217 million in that period.

“There’s money on our side, too,” Berry said, though he added unconvincingly: “I’m going to be cagey about that for now.”

Traditionally, private-utility arguments against public power involve “the risk of change,” said Ursula Schryver of the American Public Power Association in Washington, and sometimes they evoke the fear of socialism. There’s never been a state takeover, though in 1998 a big private utility was bought out by New York, resulting in the Long Island Power Authority—which has had its struggles, Hartnett was eager to point out.

There are, however, more than 2,000 municipal and cooperative systems, serving a total of 49 million people. Nebraska, one of the most conservative states, has long had fully statewide public power, but it’s a collection of municipal companies and co-ops, not a single state system.

Another potential negative force: Although a couple of Maine’s Republican senators are co-sponsors of Berry’s bill, the GOP legislative caucus hadn’t taken a position by press time, and even one sponsor’s support seems uncertain. Sen. David Woodsome, of North Waterboro, said he put his name on the bill “for the sake of conversation.”

While a lot of Republicans are upset with CMP, he said, because of its “inability to be effective and efficient and out front,” when “push comes to shove” Woodsome thought Republicans would support the company. It’s “a legitimate company.”

CMP is working overtime to cut into public-power support. Although a representative of the electrical workers’ union, the IBEW, stood with Berry at the press conference in January announcing the measure, CMP since has made a deal to hire 60 more union workers, gaining the union’s quiescence.

Whether the Legislature or the people were to pass a public-power bill, legal battles would ensue. CMP is “not for sale,” its executives repeat. In Boulder, Colorado, residents have been trying for years to institute public power. Hartnett observed that Boulder has “encountered a lengthy, litigious, and very costly process in trying to ... separate from Xcel Energy.”

Disconnecting from a private utility, she added, “Isn’t easy to do.” Those words had the clear ring of a threat.

The public-power bill, therefore, faces huge obstacles. Unless a fresh approach that excites the public is adopted—say, the green-revolution approach—the chance of LD 1646’s succeeding hardly looks assured.

But even if this bill were widely accepted politically as the vehicle to bring about an energy revolution and make Maine a showcase for the world, as David Freeman suggested, the Maine Power Delivery Authority would have to have visionary leadership for the revolution to take place. That would have to be guaranteed by new language in the bill requiring such leadership and requiring that visionary things be done.

And then, of course, for all this to come about, enough elected leaders of the state would themselves have to be visionary. On that point, where is Democratic Gov. Janet Mills on this issue? As of press time, she hadn’t publicly taken a position on the bill.