Its and Ours: Central Maine Power Has a Climate Problem

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By James Fortin

The recent substantial failures of the for-profit power utilities in California and now Texas have several things in common.  Their uniquely negligent acts have caused numerous deaths, damage and destruction to homes, and further deterioration of the natural environment.  Whether by raging wildfires or frozen natural gas lines, the denying CEOs and their profiteering management act as though climate change is just a cost of doing business. One more example of the same sort is worth noting.

The small state of Maine (population 1.34 million) recently completed a massive, year-long deliberative process ending with the adoption of a 4-year blueprint to tackle climate change. Entitled, “Maine Won’t Wait, a Plan for Climate Action,” the effort involved hundreds of scientists, local and state officials, businesses, environmental activists and staffs of universities and colleges working thousands of cumulative hours.

A benchmark effort of the Maine governor, Janet Mills, the plan calls for a quick turn away from using gasoline to power transportation and from heating oil to warm homes (60 percent of Maine homes heat with oil).  In its place, the report portends, electricity generated from wind and solar, coupled with the use of advancing storage technology, will permit Maine to achieve some of the most aggressive anti-climate change goals in the U.S. – a 45 percent decrease of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, 80 percent by 2050, and a transition to 100 percent clean energy by 2050.  Whether these standards can be achieved, or are even adequate, remains to be seen as many might say, the devil is in the details.

Not surprising anyone, the climate plan relies upon the actions of companies and investors in the economic private sector, with numerous financial incentives from the state, to bring about the changes forecasted.  That being the case, a key player in the plan will be Central Maine Power (CMP), the largest electricity transmission and distribution utility in the state, and a subsidiary of Avangrid, which is owned by the Spanish conglomerate Iberdrola.  The warning flags may now be raised.

CMP has a history.  Its mis-actions over the years – power shutoffs during brutal Maine winters, mysterious overbilling of thousands of customers, and a miserable record in power restoration during outages – garnered the 122-year-old company a distinction in 2020.  It was rated the absolute worst performer among electric utilities across the U.S. in a survey conducted by J.D. Power.  Fines along the way to such dubious stardom included a whopping $9.9 million dollar penalty last year from the Maine Public Utilities Commission – its largest-ever fine – for poor management of the electric grid.  Shades of California and Texas!

Besides distributing electric power, CMP also generates plenty of arrogance and outrage.  Earlier this month CMP informed a number of both approved and proposed solar projects in Maine that their cost to distribute their clean energy via the established electric power grid, which CMP controls, would be increased.

More than 100 solar power projects which previously had received cost estimates to hook up to the grid were stunned.  Claiming it needs the funds to update substations through which solar-generated electricity would tie into the system, one “upgrade” spiked from $600,000 to $1.3 million.  In another, the proposed rip-off  skyrocketed from $250,000 to $9 million!  A project engineer working on these 2 solar developments pointed to similar engineering performed in neighboring Vermont for $75,000.  One developer noted, “Needless  to say, such costs will prohibit these projects from being built.”  Another developer agreed, his project’s extortion toll going from $618,000 to $8.4 million.

The CMP actions immediately evoked overwhelming outrage around the state including that from the governor, herself.  Mills directed the Maine Public Utilities Commission to open an immediate investigation into CMP’s actions.  She further instructed the Commission to commence a broader review of the utility to determine its capability to accommodate the growth of renewable energy generation in the state – her top priority.

Within a day, as if by epiphany, the executive chairman of CMP, David Flanagan, responded to the outrage stating his company now realized that the higher costs “would be an impossible barrier” to solar power for some.  Also, his company had found new “solutions” to the proposed upgrades that now would cost only $175,00 to $375,000, instead of millions.  The cause of the entire matter was laid, of course, upon the faulty thinking of mid-level CMP management who supposedly were overworked and had not checked with others before announcing the figures.  Commenting on the current crisis, State Representative Seth Berry,  an outspoken critic of CMP, more precisely summarized the behavior of CMP as being “Caught trying to shake down solar developers.”

Berry has long warned of the obstacles that would be placed by CMP in the way of solar electric power generation in the state.  He put forth the possibility that CMP cynically lowered its costs, thereby quieting public outrage, by scaling back the scope of the jobs to only that needed immediately. He surmised that nothing would keep the utility from seeking a rate increase later to pay for the work.

With the support of environmental activists and organizations, Berry, who is House Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology, has a bill pending before the legislature that would create a consumer-owned, non-profit public electric transmission utility, eliminating CMP’s role.

An electric power customer in sync with Berry offered what many ratepayers in Maine think. “CMP has got to go. They are now essentially breaking contracts with solar project developers. We need this solar energy to do our part to address climate change… CMP is obviously poorly managed, and not capable of preparing Maine’s electricity grid for our clean energy future. Maine needs and deserves an electricity system designed and operated for the good of Mainers, not on behalf of stockholders.”

Based on current performance it should come as no surprise that Central Maine Power has a sordid history that includes precedent to this current outrage.  Using its decades-long monopoly status, hordes of cash, and a bevy of lobbyists, CMP secured the backing of the Maine Legislature in 1937 to essentially seize the Town of Flagstaff and surrounding valley farmlands.  Through legislative actions the valley was ceded to CMP for water storage, a dam was built, the valley flooded in 1951, and the resulting electric power distributed via the CMP electricity grid.  In protest, some residents refused to sell their homes to CMP and hung out on their rooftops as the flood waters inundated their houses.  Yet, CMP publicly would claim credit for the “progress” it had brought to the people of Maine.  Any mention of gloating, however, was absent from the news releases.

In the same spirit of bulldozing anything or anyone who gets its way, Central Maine Power today again is engaged a knock-down fight to secure $billions in profits via another environmental assault.  This time however, it must take on an organized anti-climate change movement as well as defeat an alliance of Indigenous peoples.

In 2020 nearly 70,000 registered Maine voters signed a petition to overturn by referendum a proposal disguised as “clean” energy by an electric power consortium of CMP, Hydro-Quebec, and others.  Involved are transmission lines that would connect hydroelectric mega-dams in Quebec, through Maine, to electric utilities in Massachusetts.  The petitioners attempted to reverse governmental approvals for a transmission corridor that includes a 52-mile long clear cut the width of the New Jersey turnpike through an area of woodlands and lakes prized by hikers, sportspeople, and ecological groups. The project then ties into an existing corridor which will be further developed for a total of 145 miles. 

The anti-CMP Corridor coalition had limited financial resources available to convince Mainers to oppose the project. On the other hand, the power consortium spent over $19 million in slick ads to fight any rollback of their $1 billion project calling itself the New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC).  And if the money did not sway the public’s thinking, the consortium invested in private investigators tailing and intimidating those collecting signatures on the petitions.

Losing to Mainers in public opinion polls, CMP headed to the courts where the referendum was disallowed by the Maine Supreme Court based on its constitutionality, not environmental merits.  Not giving up, however, anti-CMP corridor activists worked with other forces to initiate lawsuits and appeals in both the courts and with the regulatory agencies involved with approvals.  At the same time they reworked their petition to comply with the language of the law, collected over 80,000 signatures, again, then submitted to the State for another referendum scheduled to be held in November 2021. This time the resolution to stop the project will be on the ballot.

Aside from the outrageous clear cutting of northern Maine woods to provide what amounts to a superhighway for transmission lines, CMP has obscured the very nature of the hydroelectric power generated by its partner, Hydro-Quebec. While big-dam hydroelectric power is renewable, it is not clean.  And perhaps even more significantly the project relies on centuries-old exploitation of traditional Indigenous lands and habitats. It is anything but just.

[Note:  Hydroelectric power is produced when reservoir water built up behind a dam is released via gravity to spin turbines, which generate electricity. There are no fossil fuels involved in the process, hence the semblance of producing green energy.] 

Before Hydro-Quebec could generate electricity from the 63 dams and 27 reservoirs that comprise its massive hydroelectric system, it had to destroy extensive forests to create areas for the gigantic reservoirs of water needed to spin the turbines.  With just one of its plants, Bersimis-1, a vast wooded area was obliterated and then flooded to create its 290-square mile reservoir. In itself this forever destroyed a significant forested carbon-sequestering area while producing an enormous jolt of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Defying the image of clean electricity being produced from moving water, the captive reservoirs where water is stored also produce carbon dioxide and methane.  Both CO2 and methane are released when vegetation decomposes in water.  Methane is a greenhouse gas that has 80 times the warming power of CO2 during the 20 years after it is first released, decreasing in potency with follow-on decades.

Compounding the negative impact of reservoir water, mercury is released from the flooded soils as well.  This poisonous element has been found at dangerously concentrated levels in fish where it is then passed up through the human food chain.  In Quebec, particularly, the First Nations have noted increased levels of mercury poisoning within their communities drastically altering their traditional uses of food and negatively impacting their spiritually oriented, indigenous ways of life.

The tribes that make up the Quebec First Nations are opposed to the NECEC citing the history of hydroelectric projects which destroyed their ancestral lands.  Deputy Grand Chief Mary Ann Nui of the Innu Nation summed up her Nation’s opposition in that “people lost their land, their livelihoods, their travel routes, and their personal belongings when the area where the project is located was flooded.  Our ancestral burial sites are under water, our way of life was disrupted forever.” She went on to point out that the Innu “weren’t informed or consulted about that project then, and now Hydro-Quebec, without talking to us, intends to export electricity that is partly produced on our lands to the United States.  It is (a) further insult to the Innu, and we refuse to be ignored, it is out of the question as an Indigenous people who have already suffered great harm from Hydro-Quebec that we would allow this to happen.”

In a joint statement Chief Monik Kistabish of the Anishnabeg of Pikogan, Chief Adrienne Jérôme of the Lac Simon, and Chief Régis Pénosway of Kitcisakik , together faulted Hydro-Québec for repeatedly refusing to discuss compensation for the damages caused by its installations. “Hydro-Québec wants to export electricity to the United States … but shows no willingness to compensate our communities for the flooding and destruction of our traditional territories. This electricity comes from our lands, and we’re not going to be pushed around any longer.”

The First Nations of Quebec and Labrador deem Hydro-Quebec’s ongoing transgression to be violations of Canada’s Constitution Act of 1982, as well as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  Central Maine Power and its parent company, Avangrid, hope to ignore the issue and are rushing to get their transmission corridor up and running.   

As the Democratic political leadership of the state of Maine has outlined what part it is willing to  play to curb global warming, it is doing so by giving its consent and support to private capital to get the job done.  That is the way it works under capitalism.  Not the governor, nor the legislature, wish to be seen as promoting direct government involvement in creating the infrastructure to take on climate change for fear of being labeled “socialist.”  So they will defer even to the likes of CMP.  They will do nothing more than what is acceptable to the corporate financial mega-contributor genre.

Up to this point in time, if that means partnering with Central Maine Power, a company that is horrible at what it is supposed to do, as evidenced by the fines and censures levied against it, or through its arrogant disregard for the loudly expressed wishes of the people of Maine, past and present – so be it.

If that means CMP will make more money, more quickly, by aligning with the interests of industrial scale hydroelectric power, even at the expense of solar and wind sources that the Maine Climate Action Plan says is a priority – yes, that too.

And finally, if CMP willingly joins in an alliance of complicity with Hydro-Quebec – a Canadian state-owned instrument that perpetuates the settler-colonial oppression of the First Nations through exploitation of its resources – no problem there either.

Most obviously, CMP needs to be dispatched from the scene immediately, and that will be a step in the right direction, but it is not sufficient in itself to defeat the accelerating climate catastrophe.  Taking profit out of the equation for an electric utility in Maine is a small piece in the national struggle to save the planet.  Climate scientists already have predicted that the atmospheric warming to date already has baked in many non-reversible, awful consequences for the globe.  Failure to end  the use of fossil fuels, universally and quickly, will spell only deepening natural disasters and unparalleled human misery.  It is on this front that the entrenched interests of the fossil fuel industry and the 1% ownership class must be taken on, and they will fight back ferociously.

A national public emergency must be declared to battle climate change on all fronts, just as was done in the U.S. during World War II when industry was mobilized under federal control to build ships, airplanes, canons, and anything else needed to fight a war.  In the effort a Michigan automobile manufacturer built a B-24 bomber plane every hour during the war.  A Maine shipyard delivered one cargo ship each day. Several companies completed a total of 50,000 Sherman tanks between 1942 and 1945.  The list goes on, as would the production of solar panels, windmills, electric home heating units, electric vehicles of all types and untold other products to defeat a changing climate if the economy were mobilized.

This time, a first step would entail nationalization of the energy industries – fossil fuels, power grids, and generation sources – together with their banks that finance it.  Simultaneously, an emergency Congress of scientists, workers, production planners, unions, environmentalists, citizens, oppressed communities, and others would begin the process of planning and then implementing the way out of fossil fuel dependency, free of profit motive constrictors.  The U.S. can do it under such leadership – it did once; only the drive for unregulated profit stands in the way.  

There are two climate problems in Maine.  The first involves the rampage of climate changes now besetting the state and what steps Mainers are taking to attempt a mitigation of the primarily fossil-fuel, corporate assault on nature.  The second belongs to Central Maine Power alone.  The company has created a climate of haughty taking for itself and its partners in disregard to the needs of its customers or our Earth.  In all of this at least, Central Maine Power has validated in practice its answer to a riddle:

What do electric rate payers, environmentalists, and Indigenous peoples have in common?  A Maine utility that has found ways to screw them all in the name of profit.

[Look for other articles in coming issues of Socialist Action that will delve further into how climate change can be stopped.] 

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