Bruce Rosga received a letter from his power company in May saying he needed to pay nearly $5,000 or his electricity would be cut off. A disabled, diabetic veteran, Rosga hadn’t paid his electric bill for some years, and he couldn’t afford to pay the latest bill, either. A few weeks later, the company turned off his power.
“I lost all my food, lost all my insulin,” he said. “I had to throw it all out.”
Rosga, who lives in Dexter, a small town in central Maine, is one of tens of thousands of Maine residents who received disconnection notices this spring after they failed to keep up with bills being sent by the state’s highly profitable, foreign-owned electric utility companies, Central Maine Power (CMP) and Versant Power.
In November, Mainers will decide whether they want to put those power companies out of business and take control of the state’s electric grid, when they vote on a ballot initiative to create a nonprofit power company that would buy and operate the utilities’ transmission lines and facilities.
Supporters say it’s the most important climate election in the United States this year, and a win could inspire activists elsewhere to try to take control of their own utilities in order to limit their states’ dependence on fossil fuels.
CMP and Versant’s parent companies are furiously fighting the proposed state takeover. They have donated $27 million so far to oppose the initiative, using front groups to blanket the state with negative ads to protect their lucrative monopolies — delivering hefty paydays to Democratic campaign consultants in Washington and beyond.
The grassroots campaign to pass the public power plan, Pine Tree Power, doesn’t have that kind of money, but their small team believes they have a fighting chance to give Mainers control over their state’s power grid.
They know CMP and Versant are extremely unpopular. Electric rates have spiked in Maine over the past few years and keep going up, while outages are frequent. This spring, CMP and Versant planned to send out disconnection notices to 71,000 households — or 10 percent of Maine’s residential customers — amid the ballot measure campaign to buy out the utilities.
While Pine Tree Power recently received an endorsement from progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders (Ind-Vt.), the fight over the initiative is not a typical red-versus-blue battle.
“The split [among voters] tends to be less on a partisan line than whether the system is working for them, or whether folks can pay their power bills,” said Pine Tree Power’s deputy campaign manager Lucy Hochschartner, who leads the campaign’s field program. “The second is whether a voter has a sense of possibility, about whether we can change.”
Rosga, for example, said he voted for Donald Trump and describes himself as a “constitutional American first patriot.”
On the other side, Democratic and progressive consultants are making huge sums working for the power companies’ front groups — helping them tell Mainers it would be too expensive and complicated to buy out the utilities, which reported $188 million in profits last year.
“The utilities are completely terrified of our ability to win,” said Pine Tree Power campaign manager Al Cleveland, arguing that’s why “we’re seeing them buy out these left-leaning and progressive firms to try to package their message.”
Those consultant paydays are “being fueled by money that ultimately comes from our rates,” they added.
“The Pine Tree Power proposal is a complex, complicated scheme and it takes money to communicate the facts of the proposal to voters,” said Willy Ritch, executive director of Maine Affordable Energy, an opposition campaign funded by CMP’s parent company.
Ritch framed the pro-utility campaign’s reliance on utility money as an act of benevolence.
“Every day, the Pine Tree Power campaign has been asking Maine to fund their campaign,” he said. “They are asking wealthy donors and everyday Maine ratepayers to fork over money to fund their efforts. And I suppose we could do the same thing to fund our campaign, but instead we’ve chosen to rely on contributions from utility shareholders.”
“I Don’t Know If I Would Have Been Able To Heat My House”
Utility companies operate as monopolies guaranteed profits on essential services. There’s not much to like about any of them — but CMP and Versant are the least popular electric utilities nationally among residential customers in their respective size categories, according to a 2022 study by J.D. Power, a market research group.
There are many potential reasons for that disapproval, starting with the fact that Maine’s electric rates last year were among the highest in the country, while residents experience some of the most frequent power outages nationwide.
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“Maine is the most heavily forested state in the country and we have some of the oldest infrastructure in the country,” CMP’s president and CEO Joe Purington explained last year.
While higher supply costs — for example, a spike in natural gas prices — are to blame for much of Maine’s electric rate hikes, regulators recently approved increases to the distribution rates that consumers pay CMP and Versant to deliver their power, after the utilities saw big profits last year.
CMP, which provides 80 percent of the state’s residential power, reported $157 million in net income last year — more than the $142 million the company said it spent on total salaries and wages. Versant, which provides 13 percent of the state’s residential energy, reported $31 million in net income.
Versant spokeswoman Judy Long said, “New England has relatively higher electricity prices than other regions of the United States, but Versant Power’s rates are in the lower quartile of rates among our region’s peers.”
Jon Breed, a spokesman for CMP’s parent company, said that CMP’s rates “are some of the lowest in New England,” and that the parent company also “made more than $260 million in capital investments into Maine.”
Mainers recently demonstrated their discontent with CMP at the ballot box. Two years ago, Maine voted 59 percent to 41 percent on a ballot initiative to stop CMP from constructing a transmission line to carry hydroelectric power from Canada to Massachusetts through unbroken forests in Maine’s North Woods. (A state court ruled in April that CMP has a right to move forward with the transmission project regardless of what voters decided.)
One source of lingering discontent: Many residents have long believed they received inflated bills after CMP rolled out a new billing system in the fall of 2017. Some residents tried suing the company over those bills.
While the state ultimately fined CMP $12.5 million for billing errors, a class-action lawsuit was voluntarily withdrawn in federal court last year.
Rita George, a home health care worker who lives in Shapleigh, said she was floored in 2018 when she received a $586 electric bill for one month at her new 733-square-foot house, shortly after CMP launched the new billing system.
“I live alone,” she said. “I have pets — that’s it.”
George told The Lever that after CMP pointed blame at her appliances, she quickly replaced them but saw no relief. She said she has been fighting with CMP over the power bills for six years, and joined an unsuccessful class-action effort.
After the suit failed, George said she received a disconnect notice this April from CMP saying she owed nearly $12,000. She said she was fortunate to be able to get state assistance to help cover the bill — or the results would have been devastating.
“If they hadn’t paid that, I don’t know if I would have been able to heat my house,” she said. “I would have been worried that my animals and I were going to freeze this winter.”
George said she leans conservative, but she hopes Mainers will vote in November to buy the grid from the electric utilities.
“I hope CMP will be gone and gone for good,” she said.
A Consultant Bonanza
Question 3 on Maine ballots this November would create the Pine Tree Power Company, a nonprofit utility governed by an elected board that would acquire and operate the state’s existing for-profit electricity transmission and distribution facilities.
Maine’s Democratic-controlled legislature voted to send a similar utility takeover plan to voters in 2021, but the bill was vetoed by Maine’s business-friendly Democratic Gov. Janet Mills.
The ballot initiative this year to buy the electric grid from CMP and Versant is potentially groundbreaking — activists believe it could offer a roadmap for activists throughout the country to help ratepayers save money, curb their states’ reliance on dirty fossil fuels, and place essential public services under democratic control.
Hochschartner, Pine Tree Power’s deputy campaign manager, said that if Question 3 passes, the new state nonprofit power company will have a legal mandate to work “toward meeting climate goals and introducing beneficial electrification.” She said CMP and Versant have a tendency to delay and charge big fees to make upgrades necessary to connect renewable energy projects to the electrical grid.
In order for Maine to meet its climate goals, Hochschartner noted that there will need to be significant investments in the state’s grid in order to reduce emissions from transportation and home heating — and said it would be cheaper for a consumer-owned utility to make those investments instead of companies that are guaranteed profits.
Maine already has several small electric cooperatives and local-run electric utilities, most of which offer lower rates than CMP and Versant. The New York legislature previously created a public power authority to take over the electric utility on Long Island. Electric utilities in the state of Nebraska are all publicly-owned — and have been since 1949.
But the Maine ballot initiative poses a direct threat to two profitable corporate interests and their foreign-owned parent companies — so those companies are pouring money into the election to convince voters it would be a costly, messy mistake to try to buy out the utilities.
CMP is a subsidiary of Avangrid — an electric and natural gas provider in New York and New England that’s owned by the Spanish multinational utility giant Iberdrola. The Spanish firm’s biggest shareholders are the Qatar Investment Authority, the central bank of Norway, and the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock. Versant is owned by Enmax, a public electricity utility owned by the Canadian city of Calgary.
Avangrid has dumped $18 million into Maine Affordable Energy’s anti-Pine Tree Power campaign, while Enmax has donated more than $8 million to a similar committee, Maine Energy Progress.
Those committees have swarmed voters with TV and digital ads, mailers, and letters to the editor in local newspapers. And they have hired armies of experienced Democratic and progressive consulting firms to help make their case — as well as former state Rep. Charlotte Warren (D), who voted in favor of the 2021 state utility takeover legislation but is now being paid to publicly oppose it.
Ritch, Maine Affordable Energy’s executive director, is a former Democratic congressional spokesperson. In 2020, he ran a super PAC boosting a failed Democratic challenger to Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins. The pro-utility group has paid $110,000 to Ritch so far this year.
The Maine Affordable Energy committee has distributed $2.4 million to Left Hook, a consulting firm that works with official Democratic Party committees and progressive groups like the League of Conservation Voters.
The committee has also paid $289,000 to Global Strategy Group, a Democratic polling firm that drew scrutiny last year for trying to help the online retailer Amazon crush an ultimately successful union drive at its Staten Island warehouse.
Maine Energy Progress, for its part, has paid $202,000 to the Democratic polling outfit GQR, also known as Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, as well as $119,000 to the progressive ad firm DSPolitical.
“The Pine Tree Power proposal would put all Mainers on the hook for billions of dollars in acquisition and legal fees, and the people behind this proposal have no actual plan to lower rates, improve reliability, or enable a swifter energy transition,” said B.J. McCollister, campaign manager for Maine Energy Progress, noting that Maine’s Democratic governor and some labor unions are opposing the referendum.
“They Make So Much Money”
Pine Tree Power knows Mainers are familiar with their electric utilities and that many voters have already seen their opponents’ ads.
That’s why their organizers are using a deep canvassing model, involving personalized, wide-ranging conversations with voters. Activists are ready and eager to talk about CMP and Versant’s spending spree — in hopes of turning it against them.
On a recent Saturday morning, Hochschartner, Pine Tree Power’s deputy campaign manager, employed this strategy as she canvassed through a leafy, residential neighborhood of Portland.
One older man sitting on his patio with his wife and their friend told Hochschartner he was undecided on the measure — on a one-to-10 scale of how supportive he was of the public takeover, he said he was a “5.” He asked, “Why is it that 100 percent of the ads on the subject are against it, and you guys have zero?”
“That’s a great question,” she replied. “That’s really why I’m here today.”
Hochschartner explained that the opposition has two donors — CMP’s parent Avangrid, and Versant’s parent Enmax — and “because they make so much money, they have poured $27 million into this campaign already.”
She said Pine Tree Power plans to start running TV ads within the next few weeks but has been waiting until they have enough cash to stay on the air through Election Day. By contrast, she said, the utility groups started running TV ads “very early, and it’s because they have an unlimited chunk of money.”
Over the next half hour, Hochschartner explained how the proposed utility takeover would work. She said Pine Tree Power would aid Maine’s transition to renewable energy, because “it’s cheaper to expand the grid with a consumer-owned utility.”
By the end of the conversation, the once-skeptical man had apparently been persuaded. Now he said he was a “10.”
“I Don’t Know Where I’m Gonna Be”
Hochschartner noted in several conversations with voters that the utilities threatened tens of thousands of Mainers with shut-offs this year — something no one she talked to seemed to appreciate.
Like many states, Maine bars electric utilities from disconnecting ratepayers during the winter. Residents get no such protection the rest of the year. This spring, CMP mailed out 62,000 disconnect notices.
“We are required by law to send disconnection notices,” said Breed, the CMP spokesman. “Pine Tree Power would also be required to send these same disconnection notices.”
While Maine Public Advocate William Harwood originally said that Versant would send out 32,000 notices this year, the company disputed that number. Versant’s spokesperson, Long, said that the company “sent about 9,000 disconnection notices to customers through the end of April.”
Harwood told The Lever in an email, “Our original understanding was that there were approximately 32,000 Versant customers last spring who had sufficient amounts overdue to justify a disconnection notice. However, Versant elected to reduce the number of disconnection notices it actually sent to approximately 9,000.”
One of CMP’s disconnect notices went to Rosga, the disabled veteran living with his daughter and niece in Dexter.
Rosga said he’s tried applying for state assistance for electric bills, but he’s been denied. He said he received a medical emergency waiver from CMP, but it only provided a temporary reprieve.
“As we do with all customers, we work to develop affordable payment arrangements to avoid disconnections,” said Breed, the CMP spokesman, adding that the company has attempted to inform Rosga about payment assistance programs for which he may qualify.
After CMP first cut the power and Rosga lost the food and insulin in his refrigerator, he said his landlord was kind enough to run an extension cord up from the basement so he could keep refrigerating his medicine.
Rosga, his niece, and his teenage daughter are otherwise living without electricity. And while he said the state’s housing agency has agreed to give them a few months to get their power back on, if that doesn’t work, due to government rental assistance rules, they will have to move out.
Rosga launched a GoFundMe fundraising campaign to try to raise the $5,000 he needs to get CMP to switch the power back on. Today, he’s far short of that goal. His total balance is much higher — about $13,000, according to CMP.
“It’s just ridiculous that they would shut you off with not even a care in the world,” said Rosga, adding: “I have neighbors who are running a generator because they don’t have power, either.”
He said he plans to vote for the proposed state utility takeover — “if I’m here.”
“I don’t know where I’m gonna be… in November,” said Rosga. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m just trying to survive.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to provide additional details about the 2021 utility takeover legislation. This story has also been updated to include comments from Versant Power and Maine’s Public Advocate William Harwood explaining that the company sent out fewer disconnection notices than Harwood had originally estimated.