Yes! to Public Power

Fri, 02/21/2020 - 8:45am

About this blog:

  • Sarah Miller

    I’m Sarah Miller, a semi-retired international energy and business journalist and editor, and now a Camden resident. Having spent a career learning about old energy, I’ve turned to new energy in recent years. In doing so, I’ve come to see how important fossil fuels and the way they work were to the structure of 19th and 20th Century economies and societies. I’ve also started to imagine what cleaner, more distributed energy forms could mean for the structure of 21st Century economies and societies. The climate crisis is frightening, but the energy and social transitions that accompany it can bring us a better world -- if communities like ours here on the Midcoast work in a bottom-up, “distributed” way to make it so. That’s what Tales from the Transition is all about.

    I am active in the community through the Camden Energy and Sustainability Committee, the Camden Philosophical Society, the board of Bay Chamber Concerts and Music School, and the climate activist group Climate Matters Maine. I am a former president of the Camden Conference. The views expressed in this blog, however, are strictly my own.

Something there is that just doesn’t love Central Maine Power (CMP). When the lights went out in Camden Monday (Feb. 17) afternoon with the sun shining, little wind,  and no warning to most of us, the first thought was that CMP had goofed again. An irksome journey through the company’s phone tree eventually produced a vague explanation that it had cut service to parts of Camden, Hope and Lincolnville in order to fix a broken pole and “hoped” to have electricity back within two hours. The website didn’t list the outage. It reportedly appeared on CMP’s Facebook page about an hour into the event.

As it happened, CMP had power back within 90 minutes, and the incident was probably handled reasonably enough. But we’ve come to expect the worst, and for many of us, that translates into support for Rep. Seth Berry’s bill to convert CMP and fellow investor-owned utility Emera into a consumer-owned entity. After CMP’s billing debacle, its unpopular plan to build an “energy corridor” through western Maine to take environmentally questionable Canadian hydropower to Massachusetts, and federal data showing Maine has the most and longest outages of any US state, the wonder is that anybody wants to keep this dysfunctional utility.

Few do, in fact, judging by CMP’s last-place ranking in polling last year on how US businesses feel about their electricity providers, way behind even California’s bankrupt, fire-starting Pacific Gas & Electric.    

The better question is whether getting rid of CMP is compelling enough to warrant more active support from those who want to focus their time and attention on limiting climate change, as the issue most vital to the planet’s future. After all, CMP and Emera just move electricity. They can’t, by law, build or operate the solar and wind power or the battery storage that is so urgently required.

I see the answer as a resounding “yes.” The transition is all about not only generating clean, carbon-free power. It’s about electrification of everything: cars, trucks and buses; heating of homes and other buildings; farming and industry. It’s about reducing the amount of energy we have to use to do those things. It’s about doing all that fast enough to prevent global catastrophe.

If everything is going to go electric, though, it’s critical that the power flows reliably, affordably and intelligently to everyone. There’s no indication CMP is up to that task. Some recent incidents demonstrate just how much an investor-owned utility such as CMP, whose primary interest is in making money for those investors, can hinder local efforts to do our part in combatting the climate crisis – and how much help it would be if our power distributor were a true partner in those efforts.

Consider what is happening as towns around Maine buy their street lamps from CMP and convert them to LED fixtures, which use less than half the electricity of incandescent lights. Rockland and Camden have both taken this step. Unfortunately, CMP neglected to tell the towns that many of their street lights weren’t properly grounded, meaning that additional time and money will be needed for this lighting transition. As reported in Pen Bay Pilot, Rockland City Manager Tom Luttrell told the city council, “I’m sure they [CMP] knew” of the grounding issue, but the town is stuck. It bought the lights “as is.” Camden expects to find the same problem, according to Town Manager Audra Caler-Bell, and to have to spend an extra $7,000 to fix it.

Imagine how much quicker and probably less costly it would be if a helpful utility had been assisting Maine towns with this process from the beginning. Or remember back to last spring, when CMP belatedly issued Camden a check for $15,000 because the utility had failed to properly credit the town for the electricity generated by a municipal solar array at Sagamore Farm on Mount Battie.

The convoluted billing arrangements that were partially to blame reflect efforts by former Gov. Paul LePage to block solar development, efforts broadly supported by CMP, and it’s unclear that even now Camden’s solar credits and billing situation is entirely cleared up – even as it considers a much expanded solar investment. Our utility should be working with us on town renewables, not complicating life for overworked officials. These are small steps, you might argue. But small steps can get you there on time if you take them quickly enough, which is hard to do if you have CMP standing in the way.