Closer than you think: Maine and California

By Rob Wasserstrom | Oct 22, 2019
Courtesy of: Rob Wasserstrom Hydro-Québec transmission lines along the St. Lawrence River, from a photo taken two weeks ago.

Reading about the recent wildfires in California, it’s hard to avoid drawing parallels between Pacific Gas and Electric Company to our own CMP. Both companies botched installing new technology that caused a lot of trouble. Both companies used their ratepayers’ money to pump up stock prices instead of fixing the problems. Both companies then asked the Public Utilities Commission for rate increases to “attract investment capital” and soften the blow to their bottom line. And both of them are now fighting off a growing campaign to make them consumer-owned utilities, run by and for the people they’re supposed to serve.

One big difference: PG&E didn’t blame its problems on the 800 thousand customers who lost power, wages, school days and property as wildfires raged. Unlike CMP, no one told them that they brought this disaster on themselves (remember “usage is usage”?) and they should just suck it up. “I do apologize for the hardship this has caused,” PG&E’s new chief executive, Bill Johnson, said last week. “We were not adequately prepared.” Californians should be grateful for small differences.

PG&E serves 16 million people in northern and central California, including San Francisco. For ten years, this region has been drying out due to – you guessed it – climate change. But the company refused to invest in a sturdier grid or even ramp up routine maintenance.

Instead, PG&E opted for plan B: shutting off power during hot or windy weather. Plan B required installing a dense network of sensing instruments and hiring a large staff of meteorologists to read them. It did nothing to help, with predictable results. In 2017, its lines sparked 17 major fires, destroying 3,256 buildings and killing 22 people. Then last year, it started “the deadliest wildfire in California history” killing 85 people and destroying the town of Paradise. Total damages are estimated at $30 billion. The company has filed for bankruptcy.

CMP’s problems followed a similar arc. In 2010, the company began installing so-called smart meters and upgrading its billing system, ironically called SmartCare. At least 100,000 customers have received terrifying bills, often followed by shut-off notices. Local businesses have gone bankrupt or lost sales. And earlier this month, the company violated state law by disconnecting a home-bound woman with bronchitis who was unable to use her breathing equipment.

Call it “PG&E Syndrome.”

Where did things go wrong? According to CMP’s auditors, the company “skipped 13 weeks of testing…and failed to fix roughly one hundred system defects,” before launching SmartCare. It also cut its customer service staff, so that panicked consumers couldn’t get help with their toxic monthly statements.

SmartCare was supposed to lower consumer costs, but that never happened either. Instead, CMP laid off 85 meter readers. And so far it has failed to fix many of the problems that have given us the nation’s worst record for power outages.

At bottom, of course, the issue is profit. Iberdola, CMP’s corporate parent, short-changed the billing system and focused instead on its proposed high-voltage connection to HydroQuebec. “The power line project was all consuming,” a former executive told the Portland Press Herald. Iberdrola stands to “make millions each year” from the transmission corridor “and the billing system doesn’t make you that kind of money.”

It would be easy to dismiss CMP and PG&E as bad apples. But they’re really just extreme examples of an underlying problem: the overly-massive role of private capital in our economy. Investor-owned utilities are a particularly distinguished case, because they don’t even have to compete for customers or risk their own money. State utility commissions grant them an exclusive service territory and guarantee their profits. In turn, these profits are largely based on expanding their existing infrastructure – often called “poles and wires” – rather than exploring climate friendly alternatives like wind, solar and micro-grids. Hence, PG&E’s non-response to warming trends in California and CMP’s unrelenting opposition to renewable energy in Maine.

Can we afford the steep costs imposed by private electric companies? Clearly, the answer is no. State Representative Seth Berry has proposed creating a new consumer-owned utility, the Maine Power Delivery Authority, to buy out CMP and Emera Maine and provide cheaper, more reliable electricity. Inevitably, though, MPDA’s citizen-dominated board will run up against Guardians of the Old Order like the PUC. For MPDA to fulfill its promise, we will need an independent Office of Science Advocate – like the Office of Public Advocate – empowered to keep real climate science at the center of energy regulation. Because we can’t pole-and-wire our way out of the looming future.

This column is a project of the Midcoast Branch of the Southern Maine Chapter of Democratic Socialists of America. The opinions express herein are solely those of the authors. Comments are encouraged at midcoastmaine@gmail.com.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Oct 28, 2019 13:47

Would putting lines under ground help? It sure would beautify the roadsides. Imagine, no poles!



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