Ellsworth American: Good intentions leave too many questions
October 19, 2023
For immediate release
Contact: Willy Ritch 207-841-8400|[email protected]
A second Maine newspapers has endorsed a “no” vote on Question 3—the Pine Tree Power referendum. In an editorial today, the Ellsworth American editorial board cited the uncertainty over the multi-billion cost of Pine Tree Power, the difficulty finding a private company to operate the grid and the years of litigation that would follow if the referendum passes.
Question 3 asks voters if they want to seize the state’s private power companies and create a state run utility. The cost of that seizure is estimated to be $13.5 billion—all of which would be in the form of a debt that Maine ratepayers would be responsible for. The interest payments alone would be between $500 million and $1 billion a year — many times more than the combined profit of the current utilities. The proposal also calls for the hiring of another for-profit company to come into Maine to operate the grid.
Last weekend the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram editorial board also urged a “no” vote on Question 3.
The full text of the editorial is below:
Good intentions leave too many questions
On offer at a local ice cream stand is a mystery bag of “mistakes.” You know what you are going to pay, but not what you are going to get. It might be moose tracks or two scoops of the abomination that is bubblegum.
The Pine Tree Power proposal is its own kind of mystery bag, but the biggest mystery of all is the cost. Taking over Maine’s power grid from Versant and CMP will cost billions. How many depends on who you ask: $6 billion, $10 billion, $13 billion or even $15 billion has been suggested. Even the most informed analysts cannot predict with certainty what ultimately will be settled in the courts. That process very likely will take years and come with its own costs. Meanwhile, the infrastructure upgrades the takeover aims to speed will instead languish.
Question 3 asks Maine voters: “Do you want to create a new power company governed by an elected board to acquire and operate existing for-profit electricity transmission and distribution facilities in Maine?”
The citizen initiative was spurred by rising electric costs, customer dissatisfaction with current utility providers (and their profit margins) and growing awareness that Maine’s existing grid is ill-prepared for an increasingly electrified world.
Of all the ballot questions that will come before voters on Nov. 7, Question 3 is by far the most complex — and it comes with a lot of unknowns.
Proponents say the price tag for the takeover will be offset and then some by lower borrowing rates and by no longer funneling profits to corporate shareholders. However, no electric utility in Maine — be it CMP, Versant or Pine Tree Power — can guarantee Mainers lower electric bills because the utilities do not control the cost of the power itself. They are distributors, not producers.
Then there is the question of who will actually run the grid. The new utility’s governing board would include seven elected officers and six appointed experts, but a third-party operator — or operators — would manage the day-to-day.
Look no further than the state’s trash dilemma to see the potential pitfalls of third-party operators. The Fiberight plant in Hampden has been closed since 2020, when Coastal Resources of Maine pulled out. Only recently has another partner been secured. Trash can go to a landfill, but what is Plan B for keeping the lights on if a skilled operator for the electric grid cannot be found or falls apart down the road?
For all the many millions the power companies have poured into opposing Question 3, skeptical Mainers have remained open to or at least curious about the alternative proposed by Pine Tree Power. Unfortunately, there are many assurances but few certainties. A statewide takeover of this scale would be a first anywhere.
A “yes” vote would be akin to taking a leap of faith, trusting that this new entity must be better than what we have now. But trading a profit-driven model for one influenced by politics would come with its own barriers to cutting costs, improving service and targeting smart investments.
There is simply no guarantee of a sweet deal. For now, it would be better to give regulators more tools to hold the large utilities accountable and to explore the growth of Maine’s existing, small consumer-owned utilities. Vote no on Question 3.