AUGUSTA — A citizens’ initiative to replace Maine’s two largest electric utilities with one owned by consumers has gathered enough valid petition signatures to get the measure considered by voters next year.

Petitions for a referendum creating the Pine Tree Power Co. received 80,154 voter signatures, of which 69,735 were found to be valid, Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows said Nov. 30.

Pine Tree Power would supplant the state’s two investor-owned electric utilities, Central Maine Power Co. and Versant Power, which critics have assailed for high rates, poor performance and customer complaints.

Backers of the initiative, a group called Our Power, announced in late October that it had collected enough signatures. But they still had to be validated by the Department of the Secretary of State. A minimum of 63,067 signatures from registered Maine voters is required for citizen initiatives submitted following the 2018 gubernatorial election.

This initiative would create Pine Tree Power as a privately operated, nonprofit utility run by a 13-member board. The utility’s stated goal would be to provide reliable, affordable electric transmission and distribution services, and to help meet Maine’s climate, energy and connectivity goals.

CMP, Versant and the proposed utility are distribution companies; they don’t generate power or sell electricity supply. So the possible change would have no influence on the standard offer electricity supply rates that have risen sharply in Maine.

“Thanks to the heroic effort of hundreds of volunteers across the state,” Andrew Blunt, Our Power’s executive director, said in a statement Nov. 30, “Maine voters will now have the chance to choose between our two failing, foreign-owned power companies, CMP and Versant, and one owned by Maine people.”

The initiative to create a consumer-owned utility now will go to the Legislature, which can choose to enact the bill as written or send it to a statewide vote in November 2023.

The effort to force the sale of CMP and Versant’s assets is strongly opposed by a business and labor coalition called Maine Affordable Energy. The group is conducting its own citizens’ initiative campaign, dubbed No Blank Checks, aimed at forcing a statewide vote on any new government debt of over $1 billion. There would be exceptions for debt issued by a handful of agencies that include the Maine Turnpike Authority and the Finance Authority of Maine.

Maine Affordable Energy is backed by CMP’s domestic parent company, Avangrid Inc., which has spent more than $10 million on the campaign.

Willy Ritch, their spokesman, said in a statement Nov. 30 that the 6,000-member Maine State Building and Construction Trades Council is the most recent addition to the labor unions, business groups and small businesses opposing the takeover.

Ritch also said that No Blank Checks collected additional signatures on Election Day and now has 103,915 signatures, far more than required. The group has yet to turn in its signatures to the secretary of state for validation.

In recent years, both Central Maine Power and Versant Power have been targets of public criticism. For example, both companies have recently received poor marks in J.D. Power national satisfaction surveys of utility customers. Both utilities have sometimes been rebuked over their handling of weather-related outages or increases in the supply costs of electricity, costs the companies don’t control.

At CMP, bill increases during the winter of 2017-18 led to an investigation by the Maine Public Utilities Commission, finding CMP mismanaged the rollout of a new invoice system — resulting in late or inaccurate bills for tens of thousands of customers. The PUC staff later recommended the company develop a comprehensive plan for maintaining the system, as well as a financial penalty equivalent to a $4.9 million reduction to CMP’s annual earnings until the company met certain service quality benchmarks.

CMP and Avangrid also are part of the stalled effort to construct a $1 billion, 145-mile transmission line corridor through western Maine — an effort that has generated strong opinions both in support and opposition. On Tuesday, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that CMP has a valid lease for the New England Clean Energy Connect project to cross certain public lands in northern Maine, overturning a 2021 lower court decision. The new decision, however, doesn’t allow NECEC to resume construction.