The Case for Consumer-Owned Utilities

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Many Maine electricity consumers struggle with a discouraging combination of poor service and high rates. Maine ranks dead last in the nation in terms of average hours without power annually per customer, excluding major storms, while residential rates are over 23% higher than the national average. By and large we simply pay the monthly bill and sigh. What can we do? For most of us Central Maine Power is the only game in town.

Lately resignation is giving way to anger and consumer action. CMP’s customer service fell to new depths beginning in the fall of 2017, when they bungled their response to a big storm in November that left almost half a million customers without power. That same autumn they also rolled out a new billing system without adequately testing and debugging it beforehand. That Christmas people started getting wildly inflated bills–we’re talking double or triple what they’d normally pay. Other customers stopped receiving any bills at all.

When people called CMP to find out what was going on–including elderly people on fixed incomes who feared losing their heat–CMP customer service representatives assured them that the bills were accurate and the reason for the increase was “abnormally cold weather” or “a faulty appliance.”

Before long thousands of people contacted the state Public Utilities Commission to complain, and a Facebook group called CMP Ratepayers Unite grew to over 7000 members.

CMP denied any problems with their billing system despite abundant evidence to the contrary. Eventually internal emails leaked out showing that, in fact, they’d been aware of issues from the start but management chose to sweep the problems under the rug.

It’s been a year and a half since the billing system fiasco started yet a recent investigative article by the Bangor Daily News indicates that many customers are still struggling with inflated bills–including seniors who’ve reported paying over $500 for one month of electricity rather than face disconnection. The Maine Public Utilities Commission–whose job is to protect consumers from such abuses–has effectively¬† refused to hold CMP accountable.

All of these circumstances combined have set the table for a consumer rebellion. The company granted a state-protected monopoly on delivering electricity has abused their privileged position so badly and so egregiously disregarded its own customers that a bill is now before the state legislature to have CMP “step aside.” A publicly-owned utility will buy CMP’s transmission infrastructure at fair market value and run it as a quasi-public entity (L.D. 1646).

If this bill passes–and it just might, despite the army of corporate lobbyists hired by CMP to swarm the legislature–Maine’s electric consumers will no longer have to deal with a foreign investor-owned utility prone to predatory behavior, and instead will have their electricity transmitted by a nonprofit publicly-owned utility. According to research done by the bill’s sponsor, legislator Seth Berry, the change would reduce annual transmission costs by 7-9%. More importantly, a consumer-owned utility would provide much-needed transparency and accountability to the system.

If enough Maine consumers push their legislators to back the bill, it just might be enough to counteract the corporate lobbying muscle being flexed by CMP Augusta. Here’s hoping it happens.

When a corporation is permitted to operate without competition in a highly-critical sector of our infrastructure with a guaranteed profit (CMP net was $130 million in 2017), and in return they degrade service and overbill customers, then that corporation has abused the privilege they’ve been entrusted with and must step aside.