Seth Berry: Maine Monopoly

This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with Maine state representative Seth Berry about the shortcomings of his state’s power grid and recent efforts to create a consumer-owned model that is less reliant on fossil fuels. We look at the monopolistic nature of public utilities in Maine and several other states, examine some possible solutions to the problem, and get a glimpse into the political power brokers deciding who will keep the lights on Down East for decades to come.

Narrator  0:02  This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex wise.

Seth Berry 0:21  Any critical infrastructure, which is a natural monopoly, like our grid has got to be of buying for the people. And it’s got to be nonprofit, it just it doesn’t work otherwise.

Narrator  0:33  This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with Maine state representative Seth Berry, about the shortcomings of his state’s power grid, and recent efforts to create a consumer owned model that’s less reliant on fossil fuels. We look at the monopolistic nature of public utilities in Maine and several other states examined some possible solutions to the problem and get a glimpse into the political power brokers deciding who will keep the lights on down east for decades to come.

Alex Wise  1:21  I’m joined now on seachange radio by my friend Seth Berry, he is a state representative in Maine. He is vice president of a biotech firm that deals in aquaculture, called kennebec River bio sciences. And he is also a board member of the our power movement. Seth, welcome back to Sea Change Radio.

Seth Berry It’s great to be with you. Good to see you again.

Alex Wise Yes, so you continue to fight the good fight there in the great state of Maine. First, why don’t you tell us a little bit about the our power movement, it’s it’s a pretty cool idea. And people can go to our power to check it out. That’s right, they sure can. And our power is an organization, which we started a little over a year ago and actually grew out of a previous organization that we had founded called main power for main people our power and again, it is our power is working to make main the first state in the nation to get to 100% renewables and adjust transition. So we want to make that transition fully. No fudging the numbers with you know, creative accounting. And that’s a problem in greenhouse gas accounting sometimes. And also, we want to do it in a way that’s affordable so that all Mainers are able to participate in that transition, the way that we hope to get there is by creating a consumer owned utility. So that the future electrical grid, which is a monopoly, we will all be depending on no matter where you are in the country in a decarbonized future, so that that grid is not for profit, and is of by and for the people that it serves. So give us a snapshot of the current electrical grid or grids in Maine and how the our power movement hopes to inject itself into that matrix? Yeah, great, great question. So the current electrical grid in Maine is the least reliable in the nation. That means we have the worst outages, specifically, the most frequent outages in the nation and the second longest outages in the nation. And that’s for several years running. We also have a very high costs associated with that grid. So the average electricity customer here in Maine is paying the 10th highest rates overall in the entire nation. And then customer satisfaction, which is another good metric to look at is the lowest in the nation, bar none. And you coming from the PG&E service territory, we’ll appreciate that pg&e is actually ranked better than our largest consumer, our largest utility here, which is called Central Maine power. CMP serves most Mainers there’s a second largest electrical utility called versant. And then a number of small, very well run consumer owned utilities that serve part, you know, the remainder of the state. It’s only they only serve about 5% of the load. They do serve many municipalities, but most of those are quite rural. So again, CMP inversing, together the two large utilities are giving us the 10th highest rates, the worst reliability and the very worst customer satisfaction. Clearly mean is poised for change. mean people are fed up with the situation that they find themselves in. And as we look to decarbonize, we will be depending on this grid, this electrical grid for literally everything, you know, all of our future energy needs. So it’s a problem. And it’s one that we hope to solve.

Alex Wise 5:00 So in California, one of the main dissatisfactions that people are finding is that their operators, electrical wires have contributed to burning down half the state. So that hasn’t been ideal. That’s a good way to kind of lose Yelp stars for sure. What is the mix for CMP? And versus grid in terms of fossil fuel and clean energy mix? And what are some of the root causes, in your estimation of the shortfalls of these two operators? Yeah, yeah. Well, first, just as an aside on PG&E, you know, killing 100 people and, you know, pleading guilty to felonies and going bankrupt twice in the last, you know, 20 years, that’ll do it.

Alex Wise Yeah, you know, that that’ll lose the, the Yelp stars, for sure.

Seth Berry 6:07  And by the way, like, again, like they rank higher in customer satisfaction than our utility here. So that’s an accomplishment, you know, for our utility to do worse than PG&E, I think. You asked about the mix here. The mix here is, first of all, it’s not provided by these utilities, we have a separate and competitive supply market. In other words, we’re restructured state, because of our very high rates, like many other states, with high rates, we did restructure we required the utilities to sell off their generation plants and that, you know, it’s been, it’s not without controversy, but I think by and large, it’s actually been a success. We do have in the supply. The typical mix is largely hydro, biomass, some wind and a lot of natural gas. Maine is doing better in getting to renewables through some of that legacy, stuff like Hydro and biomass that I mentioned, you know, burning woodchips, largely for the production of energy, which somewhat controversially is considered renewable here. I think you know that that’s probably a debatable point. But it is considered renewable and zero emissions remain. The, the companies have really stood in the way however, of more decentralized solutions and solutions that reduce the need to build out the grid. One of the unique problems with investor owned utilities across this country is that we have a rigged regulatory system, which requires that they be given the double digit guaranteed profit based on their investments in, in in capital infrastructure. So if if any utility in this country, that’s for profit, invest, you know, $100,000, in, you know, towards a new substation, or renovated substation, or for that matter, you know, a bunch of new poles and wires to replace older ones, they’re guaranteed a profit. So they’re always looking to overbuild the grid, they’re always looking to gold plate, the grid, and the grid of the future is, is is not overbuilt, it is it is in fact, much more efficient than that. It involves a lot of two way or multi directional flow, your hot water heater, your electric vehicle, your heat pump, can be called upon as a resource in the grid of the future, and can be turned off at times of peak demand, you know, remotely. There’s a lot more it involved in the grid of the future. And there’s a lot more efficiency. And there’s also a lot of distributed renewables like rooftop solar, in the grid of the future. So they are opposing or standing in the way of that transition, which we require to decarbonize rapidly and equitably. And I emphasize equitably because the affordability is critical if we’re if we’re all going to get there. Right now rooftop solar are largely things that the wealthy have and others don’t. So these folks are the they’re  the you know, the crossing the traffic cop at the intersection between, you know, where we are now and where we hope to be. And they are monopoly, and they’re working within a rigged system. So that’s what we propose to fix.

Alex Wise 10:00 So if I had a CMP or Versant spokesperson on with us right now, what would they point to as some of the reasons for their shortcomings? I mean, Maine is a pretty rural state, but it’s not the largest physical state in the Union by any stretch of the imagination. I did hear at least that there wasn’t a huge reliance on coal in there. But where would they be pointing the blame for their shortfalls?

Seth Berry If they point the blame anywhere except at themselves, you know, that they blame they like to blame trees, you know, don’t talk back and they do say,  it’s true that Maine has a lot of trees, how does that hinder their operation, they get knocked down and that causes outages, right? So, so trees, trees get blown over. But and that is true. However, the state with the best reliability in the nation, the shortest and least frequent outages is Nebraska, Nebraska also happens to be the only state with no trees in a very few trees. But what Nebraska does have is what Nebraska does have is, is a lot of tornadoes. And that wreaks havoc, as you might imagine with electrical infrastructure, they still managed to have the best reliability in the nation, and they’re very rural. And when you’re when you’re rural, you’re you have a lot of lines of wire, you know, wire poles and wires per customer, the grid is is much more expensive per customer. And so that has cost implications as well as reliability implications. Again, Nebraska, you know, is the is the most reliable state, they’re obviously also one of the cheapest states in the nation. So, you know, we can we can learn from this. And there are other places around the country that that, likewise are doing more with less, they tend to be the places that are nonprofit and that are that are governed of by and for the people they serve. Speaking of the government there, I mean, contrast, main politics and how it relates to the state’s electric grid versus let’s take a Nebraska while we’re on that subject. Sure. Yeah, the politics of Maine are fascinating. We, we had a little mini Trump before Trump was even elected guy named Paula page. He is he’s famous, right? You heard of him even out and on the left coast. So Paul was basically. Yeah, the page was he likes to say he was Trump before Trump was Trump. And you know, he was elected in 2010 in the big you know, the red tide of the Tea Party 2010 election, the midterm elections and Republicans. The Tea Party principally took not only the governorship but also the main house and the main senate so that the whole the whole trifecta flipped in that year here in Maine. And we entered a you know, a dark ages of sorts, we had a really tough time, especially in those first two years where they had the trifecta, we then took back the house and senate but LePage was reelected in 2014 and remain governor for eight long, dark years. But we do we’ve done a lot of incredible things here because the voters are open to them and I think of many things that were done through the ballot question like California we have direct democracy I don’t think Nebraska has that we can put something on the ballot directly so we enacted the the first and best Clean Election system in the country by by ballot question we enacted the first bottle bill with you know redemption back in the 70s to get the bottles beverage containers off the streets and the in the rural roads. We enacted rank choice voting first in the nation to do that on a statewide basis back in 2016 we enacted a tax on the wealthy we enacted minimum wage you know and to do that in spite of you know very conservative results like what we saw Paula LePage is pretty interesting.

(Music Break)

Alex Wise  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Maine state representative Seth Berry. He is also on the board of our power, our power and a VP at Kennebec River biosciences. So what are some of the solutions that our power main is trying to set forth?

Seth Berry  14:53  Our power is laser focused on making Maine the first state in the nation to make and adjust transition to 100%. Local and renewables for our power. And the way that we do that is by creating a pine tree power company, a nonprofit, independently operated, democratically governed utility, which will serve as a true partner in that transition. You know, as I mentioned, over my 13 years of experience in the legislature primarily working on energy and telecom policies, we’ve seen these two large for profit utilities again and again, not only fail their customers but also stand in the way of good policy they have opposed net metering, you know, for rooftop solar, and actually succeeded in Rolling that back under the the pager ministration they opposed efficiency, they’ve tried to ram through a very expensive, very destructive, large transmission line to connect us to hydro resources to the north in Quebec, rather than encouraging, you know, local, more local Maine based solutions. And again, they’re  all about this, this very centralized overbuilt gold plated grid, which is really not the efficient and affordable grid that we need in the future. As a result, we have seen in this state, an energy burden for our lower income consumers, which is off the charts, it is one of the highest in the nation, the average person at the federal poverty level, maybe a single mother trying to support a couple kids, she might be making $16,000 a year, she’s spending on average $4,000 a year on her energy costs alone. As we switch to all clean energy, we need to make sure we don’t lose, you know, leave people like her behind. Likewise, we have many, many factories and a lot of industry where the jobs are really dependent on low energy costs. So we believe that this the shift to a consumer utility will address that need by cutting costs. Our projections are that by creating the primary power company and buying out the existing consumer utilities, we can save $9 billion over the first 30 years alone. In California, that might not be as much but here in Maine, with only 1.3 million people, that’s a lot of money. So we can reduce costs, as we make the transition, also have local democratic governance and utility that’s really responsive to the imperatives of the moment. Give us a better idea of the solar profile of Maine obviously, it’s one of them more northern states, but I can see its residents being able to benefit greatly from the freedom that residential solar can provide, especially when the grid operators are falling short in terms of customer service and reliability issues. If you can walk us through some of the rebates and what the penetration rates are currently and how our power hopes to stimulate residential solar market in Maine. Sure, yeah. So you know, most people are pretty familiar with the concept of net metering. It’s really the original way of dealing with with rooftop solar where, you know, if the sun is shining, and you’re, you know, your dishwashers not running lights are off, you might be running your meter backwards part of the time, right so so the the idea of net metering is you know, you, you can run your meter backwards, and then you get your bank those credits and you can use them any time during the year. You never get a check. You might pay a small monthly amount for the privilege of being connected to the grid. But you’re not making money on it. You’re just breaking even that idea of net metering is something that investor on utilities, whether it’s PG&E where you are or Central Maine power where I am, have opposed and have fought against across the country, it’s been a huge Flashpoint in the battle over our clean energy future. And what’s really going on it’s  a proxy war for who will control the energy of the future, who is in charge of that energy. You know, when we decarbonize when we switch to electrical vehicles and electric heat pumps and you know, and literally electrify everything, the utilities want to own it all. They want to own everything and they want to protect their profits they’ve got they’ve got hotels and monopolies on boardwalk and Park Place on you know, Pennsylvania Avenue, you know, all the way around the Monopoly board of our grid right now and they want to keep every one of those because you know, when you and I land on the square, they want us to pay full boat. We’ve already gone forward here in Maine with a good deal of community solar, making that net metering, available through virtual net metering to customers across the country. But we had to do that. And, you know, over and above the objections of our utility and it was only because democrats took a trifecta in the House, the Senate and the governorship starting in 2018, that we were able to do that. Now, the utilities be working hard to roll that back, and we need to protect it, we also need to move forward with more efficiency, more solutions, like demand aggregation. And offshore wind is a huge opportunity here in Maine, as it is in Northern California as well.

Alex Wise  20:33  Listening to you describe some of the politics of Maine, and talking about the solar industry brings to mind a piece we did five years ago or so with Tim Dickinson, investigative reporter for Rolling Stone who’s talking about the Florida solar issues and how the state legislature there is really in bed with the public utilities and had put in these crazy laws prohibiting individuals from leasing solar panels. So like Florida, which has a really, I think the second best solar profile in the country in terms of Sun was not even in the top 10 in terms of penetration rates for solar, largely because people had to just buy their panels, they couldn’t release them, which has been one of leasing has been one of the real sparks for soldiers popularity around the country. So if you can kind of take us behind the scenes and shed some light on the political infighting, corruption and what is keeping the main grid from being more efficient, and how the political system is has been a hindrance along the way.

Seth Berry  22:03  Yeah, well, I love it that you brought up Florida because it is a great example of where this incredible opportunity and solar and the industry just owns the State House, you know, and it’s a classic problem. The investor on utility industry has done an excellent job of gaming the system around the country over the last 100 years, in fact, 120 years arguably in the early 1900s, they lobbied for and successfully created public utility Commission’s around the country you know, people think these utility public utility Commission’s are there to regulate the utilities there. That’s theoretically true, but they’re what they really do is balance the needs of the investors for profit with the needs of the customers, and that’s if they’re doing their job well, more often than not, they’re just responding, they’re captured regulators, and they’re responding to what, you know, whatever the industry is, is looking for. And they justify this crazy for profit monopoly system that we have, you know, with respect to the captured regulator, you know, and that’s really, I think, the way you’re getting out with your question. We do see that in Maine as well. And it’s, it’s often a psychological capture, it’s not even that people are, you know, on the, you know, on the take, and they’re, like literally corrupt, it’s just that they are, they drink the Kool Aid, because these very nice silver tongued lobbyists and lawyers for the utilities are in the committee rooms of the legislature, and in the Public Utility Commission hearings, you know, very friendly, very, you know, very well behaved or polite, you know, they talk they ask about your kids and, you know, and they, they form relationships and and, you know, pretty soon you’re going out to lunch together, and then you know, they’re also super smart and and so when they when they say that something is a good idea in energy policy. The the legislators often respond, and it’s, it’s typically that they take republicans for granted. And, you know, the republicans just do whatever they say. And they, and then they, they get enough Democrats, they only need a handful. You know, even when there’s a democratic majority, they can usually get what they want, by just getting, you know, all the republicans and a handful of Democrats to go along with them. So that’s the kind of regulatory capture that we typically see. It’s sometimes it’s more blatant, you know, we’ve seen examples around the country of people being bought off, you know, the Speaker of the House in Illinois, not long ago, for example, it was, you know, found to be on the take and actually lost his job. You know, utilities will hire people to pretend to be, you know, grassroots activists and they’re, they’re literally actors. You know, we’ve seen that sort of thing happen, but more often than not, it’s just good old fashioned, loitering and lobbying and you know, being present. Throughout the committee processes where the average person just doesn’t, I mean they don’t even speak the language never mind have the time to go and you know, spend the whole the whole week in a committee room is a very esoteric topic too. That closes people off as well. So you know, what, that’s, that’s really the biggest issue, Alex, you know, it’s not as sexy as you know, as like bribery and corruption. But I think that’s the most pervasive reason that we do have this problem here in Maine. There are also absolutely, you know, political campaigns of political contributions that are a factor here. Our legislature has a great Clean Election system, but a lot of folks still run traditionally and take, you know, donations from our utilities. The Clean Election system really hasn’t worked for the governor’s office. And people always run traditionally for that, if they went, you know, our current governor or the previous governor, every governor that I’ve that, you know, that in Maine history has asked for, and received corporate donations, including from our utilities. So, the interesting thing about about me in politics, and I think this is true across the country, is that the utilities have really, always had a stranglehold on the democratic process, you know, literally every our hospitals, you know, it’s crazy to have this owned and controlled by a for profit monopoly, which by the way, is a foreign for profit monopoly. It’s not even, you know, US based in the case of Maine anymore. So, you know, what I like to ask people is, would you, would you want to turn over the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines to a foreign for profit monopoly, you know, and then, quote, unquote, regulate it? You know, would that make sense to try to own and control our military? You know, I don’t think so. I don’t think you would either. Now, what about our public schools? Would it make sense to turn over our public schools completely to a foreign for profit monopoly and, you know, try to regulate that and make that work? Probably not. Our hospitals, our fire stations, you know, our roads and bridges, you know, that this is any critical infrastructure, which is a natural monopoly, like our grid has got to be of buying for the people. And it’s got to be nonprofit, it just, it doesn’t work otherwise, and we will not decarbonize. We will not successfully decarbonize if Maine and California and Nebraska and Florida, don’t have consumer ownership of utilities.

Alex Wise  Well, folks can go to to get involved. And thanks again for the terrific work you’re doing for your constituents there in Maine. Seth Berry, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

Seth Berry  28:03  My pleasure, Alex.

Narrator  28:16  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our Intro Music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Raul De Souza and Roger Miller. Check out our website at to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcasts. Visit our archives there to hear it all McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week, as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.