A New Utility Model
There’s a growing gap between what Maine’s ratepayers want and what they’re getting from the state’s dominant electric utility, Central Maine Power (CMP). The wish list is short: reliable power, low cost and low carbon (that is, supporting distributed renewable power sources like sun and wind that reduce climate threats and increase energy independence). CMP, part of a larger utility conglomerate called Avangrid, is coming up short in all three areas, and ratepayers are growing impatient.
CMP’s ongoing efforts to undermine solar power in Maine drew attention this winter when a group of Quakers concerned about climate change decided to “shine a light” on what they call the utility’s “galling hypocrisy.” “They say over and over that they support solar,” notes group member Rob Levin of Portland, “even as they lobby against it.”
About 30 protesters – all CMP ratepayers – organized a peaceable protest at the utility’s Augusta office, hoping to meet with a company representative. Instead, CMP locked its lobby and called the police on the four ratepayers who approached the building.Police on Jan. 29 arrested protesters from the group Speak the Truth to CMP at Central Maine Power in Augusta. Photo by Andy Molloy
Maine legislators have put forward repeated bills in recent years to strengthen solar power generation, both residential rooftop installations and larger municipal arrays. But the measures have succumbed to vetoes by Gov. LePage and to shameless lobbying tactics. State Sen. Tom Saviello, a Republican representing the Wilton area, believes he had sufficient votes to override the veto of the 2017 solar bill – LD 1504 – but delayed the vote to accommodate CMP lobbyists who requested time to negotiate further changes. The utility didn’t follow through until prompted to after 10 days. When that meeting occurred, Saviello and another legislative leader conceded to the company’s requests. Even so, he says, they heard back “not even an hour later – no dice. CMP was buying time,” he says, to further pressure legislators; “they just tell half-truths.”
Simmering frustration at CMP bubbled over in recent legislative hearings reviewing the utility’s response to the October 2017 storm that left nearly half a million of its ratepayers without power – some for up to 10 days. Vocal critics cited the breakdown of CMP’s $200 million smart-meter system, its poor communications and its cutbacks of maintenance staff.
State Rep. Seth Berry of Bowdoinham, who co-chairs the energy, utilities and technology committee, was struck by the contrast between CMP’s storm response and that of a small consumer-owned electric utility, Kennebunk Light and Power District. Workers at the locally owned utility had power back within 4 hours for all but one of the roughly 500 customers affected by that storm. “What does that tell us about a utility model where the sole responsibility of leadership is to make a profit for shareholders?” Berry asks. “We need a grid that is not just a cash cow for international investors, but one that focuses on the needs of Maine customers and workers.”
For Berry, CMP’s shortcomings are not confined to a single storm response or even to what he calls “its misrepresentation of the facts around solar” (using misleading figures to frighten people into thinking broader adoption of solar would raise electricity rates). Given that Maine’s high energy costs are driven not by power generation but by rising fees for electricity distribution and transmission, he would like to see a task force examine why ratepayers are getting such a “lousy deal,” and have the Legislature reassess “the fundamental bargain struck over who operates our grid.”
“Many utilities are in a model and mindset that has made it hard to take strategic risks on behalf of the customers, (opting instead to) do what they’ve done forever,” says Josh Castonguay, vice president of innovation at Vermont’s Green Mountain Power (GMP). That utility, a certified B corporation dedicated not just to profits but people and planet, takes a very different approach, welcoming – in his words – this “customer-led energy revolution.”
Unlike Maine utilities, Green Mountain Power still produces electricity as well as distributing it. Even so, GMP aggressively promotes cutting energy use and strives to minimize new infrastructure by generating power close to where it’s needed – a key strategy in keeping down customers’ costs. “We’re trying to flip the traditional delivery model on its head,” Castonguay explains, so electricity generation and use becomes more of a “data network than a one-way flow.”
GMP assists customers in getting Tesla Powerwall batteries to store energy from the grid or rooftop solar panels. Customers benefit by having battery backup in power outages and GMP can tap those battery supplies during periods of peak demand to drive down ratepayer costs. In this way, Castonguay says, solar passes GMP’s uniform test for new initiatives – having to “provide value for all our customers.”
CMP ratepayers may find it hard to imagine a utility that encourages solar and seeks – as GMP does – to use “energy as a force for good that improves lives and transforms communities.” But it’s not a pipe dream. Maine can and must begin shaping a utility model that better serves consumers, emphasizes local energy sources and smart management over new pipelines and transmission lines, and offers greater resilience as a warming climate brings more extreme weather. If change doesn’t come from the State House or a new governor, it might come via a referendum.
An important turning point is close at hand. Maine legislators are expected to vote again soon on a solar bill, LD 1444, which overwhelmingly passed both houses but will undoubtedly meet with the governor’s knee-jerk veto. This bill expands participation in community solar projects and reverses the PUC’s madcap scheme to charge solar panel owners for power generated and used on their own premises. Overriding that expected veto, Berry says, would be “a first step on a longer journey toward a utility of the future that is much more of a two-way street between the owner/operator and the people it serves.” That sounds like a decisive move toward energy as a force for good.
© Marina Schauffler, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.