A democratic grid?

By Dylan Cookson | Jun 06, 2019
Artwork by: Lisa Lyons

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

This sentence is from the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, adopted July 4, 1776, by the Second Continental Congress. Today, I am tasked with answering the question in the concluding paragraph of my last column: “How does the consent of the governed apply to Maine’s energy economy?”

Democratic socialists recognize the extent to which capital can govern us without meaningful consent. Our workplaces, the products and services that we must buy to survive, are shaped by decisions made by capitalist institutions. Those who control capital can hire lobbyists to shape regulations and laws in their favor, they can limit employment, bust unions, set the conditions of employment and pay public relations firms to shape public opinion through deception and slanted media coverage.

Corporations of all kinds are governing us every day without our consent and Central Maine Power is no different.

CMP's infrastructure is largely built using money we pay them through our electrical rates. But, apart from the regulatory power of the state government, we have no say in how it invests our payments or runs our grid.

A May 1article by Josh Keefe in the Bangor Daily News “How Central Maine Power Failed Its Customers and Still Increased Profits,” outlined how the company’s decisions led directly to the problems that many of us have experienced with our electrical grid in the past several years.

To maximize shareholder value, CMP cut the size of the line crews. Former lineman David Ellis described the line crews' workload as “killing them.” Many Mainers saw power outages for intolerably long periods, as the line crews dealt with long hours and short staffing.

In another move to maximize profits, CMP cut call center staff and reorganized its billing system. Thousands of Mainers reported issues with their bills and spent hours on the phone with CMP staff. Now, many of those wronged have banded together into a class-action lawsuit, accusing the company of fraud.

Maine's electrical grid is a precious resource. In order to keep the lights on and our homes heated, we have no choice but to pay for it. But the decisions about how to use that money and manage the resource have been taken out of our hands. Those of us who work on the lines do so according to the working conditions set by the company. Those of us who pay the company for power do so according to rules set by the company and a state Public Utility Commission that seems to work for the company instead of the ratepayers. It is in this way that CMP and its parent company, Avangrid, govern without our consent.

It’s time for a democratic power grid that runs on the Maine people's rules. The customers' rules, line workers' rules, the call center staff's rules.

But how the heck would that work?

I would prefer a system as horizontally democratic as possible, with the power to govern the resource spread as widely as possible among Maine people. Elected regional boards, representing the Maine people as customers, inhabitants of Maine's environment and laborers on the grid would work with a central organizing entity to ensure regional cooperation and efficient use of statewide resources.

State Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, has put forth a proposal that would create a statewide authority to govern the grid not unlike the Maine Turnpike Authority. The authority's board would not be popularly elected by the Maine people; but appointed by the governor.

From what I have seen, there is no guarantee of labor representation within the authority. There is also a risk that, with campaign finance as it is, corporate lobbyists might pressure future governors for friendly appointments.

A system with guaranteed labor representation, regional autonomy and elected boards would be superior. However, Berry's proposal is still more democratic than the current system. And by all accounts, it would benefit Maine customers and laborers. I think it is in our interest to support the reform. But, ultimately, we should be aiming for something better.

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