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Maine’s Historic Public Power Push Goes Down in Flames

Early results suggest the campaign to take over the state’s utilities was defeated in a landslide.

Utility workers and power lines.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

An unprecedented “public power takeover” campaign in Maine failed on Tuesday, according to a projection by The New York Times.

The Maine ballot had asked voters if they wanted to create the Pine Tree Power Company, a nonprofit electric utility governed by a publicly-elected board, which would purchase and acquire all of the investor-owned transmission and distribution utilities in Maine. When the Times made its call, voters had rejected the initiative 71% to 29%, with over a third of precincts reporting.

The ballot question was the culmination of a multi-year campaign by a group called Our Power, which initially brought the idea to a vote in the Maine legislature in 2021. Though it passed, the bill was vetoed by Governor Janet Mills, and supporters did not have the votes to override the decision. Instead, they gathered the 63,000 signatures required to put the question to Mainers on this year’s ballot.

A growing contingent of the progressive climate movement is turning to the idea of public power as a way to solve many aspects of the energy transition at once. They argue that the system of providing electricity through state-sanctioned private monopolies is incompatible with an era of climate change, when utilities should be rapidly transitioning to clean energy, while also growing and hardening the grid, and easing the cost burden for the most vulnerable customers. The theory is that a public utility, unencumbered by the need to turn a profit, will be able to prioritize other public goals.

Public power advocates in Maine offered voters a laundry list of other reasons why they thought the state’s two investor-owned utilities, CMP and Versant, should be replaced. Though it’s rare that anyone likes their utilities, CMP and Versant are consistently rated the worst for customer satisfaction in the Northeast. CMP has faced multiple investigations and fines over its billing system, customer service, and delays connecting new solar projects to the grid. Advocates also appealed to nationalist views by highlighting the fact that both companies have “foreign owners.” (CMP is owned by Iberdrola, a Spanish company. Versant is owned by Enmax, a Canadian company owned by the city of Calgary.)

But in the run-up to the vote, the two utilities spent millions of dollars running targeted ads on social media and streaming services calling the idea “too costly and too risky.” This “disaster for Maine” would “hurt workers and small businesses,” they argued.

A few key aspects of the takeover were uncertain, including the ultimate cost of the acquisition, how long it would take to complete, and whether the transition would result in lower rates for customers. Campaigners essentially asked Mainers to take a leap of faith. They managed to convince the city of Portland, but few other parts of the state appeared to get on board.

This was perhaps the most ambitious attempt at a public power takeover the nation has seen since the early 20th century. But other, similar efforts are underway in cities and towns all over the country, like Ann Arbor, Michigan, and San Diego, California.

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Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal. Read More

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