It wasn’t quite the answer you’d expect. But as talking points go, it was a head-turner.

In an interview Friday about the future of electrical power transmission and distribution in Maine, I asked state Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, for his take on the many and varied fiascoes currently plaguing the once-esteemed Central Maine Power Co.

“CMP no longer exists,” Berry replied flatly. “And I don’t mean to say CMP no longer exists as we know it. I mean to say they no longer exist. CMP is Iberdrola. Iberdrola is owned by investors, primarily from Qatar and Norway and Spain. That is who is delivering our power.”

He left out Avangrid Inc., the Connecticut-based subsidiary of the Spanish multinational Iberdrola that actually owns and operates CMP, but his point’s the same: Never have we Mainers been farther removed from those who ultimately control how our electricity gets from the power plant to our not-so-smart meter.

Nor have we been more ticked off. From CMP’s glitch-plagued billing system, to its proposed massive transmission line through pristine western Maine that’s just passing through on its way to Massachusetts, to its errant refund notices that went out to 62,000 customers last week (“Sorry, folks, someone pushed the wrong button”), what was once a relatively harmonious relationship between much of Maine and its power utility is now, shall we say, burnt toast.

Berry, who chairs the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, wants to change all that.

His solution: Turn Maine’s electrical transmission and delivery system from a private, for-profit moneymaker into a public, nonprofit authority owned and controlled by the people who pay the bills.

At any other time, it would be dismissed as a pipe dream – and to many, a socialist conspiracy to boot.

But this is not any other time. The more sparks fly around CMP, the brighter Berry’s idea seems to glow.

“It certainly is timely,” he said.

To wit:

On Wednesday, the Maine Public Utilities Commission sent a blistering letter to CMP President Doug Herling. It threatened a $500,000 fine and, more significantly, reduced profits for CMP (read: Iberdrola) if the utility continues to drop the ball on new customers not receiving bills, low-income customers not being referred to an energy audit program as required by law, and a backlog of over 1,000 customer complaints over chronic bugs in the company’s billing system.

“We take the issues very seriously and intend to respond,” CMP spokeswoman Catharine Hartnett told the Portland Press Herald.

Then on Thursday, CMP revealed that notices of refund intended for 122 large industrial customers who are owed some $3.2 million in overages also went out mistakenly to 62,000 other customers who actually have not a dime coming their way.

“It was the right message sent to the wrong group of customers,” Hartnett responded at the time. “This was an unfortunate error that stands out due to some of the customer service issues we have been experiencing.”

Stands out indeed.

Berry, who’s been contemplating his private-to-public utility bill since last summer, said it’s impossible to view his legislation outside the context of CMP’s ever-mounting brouhahas.

But those controversies aside, he said, the bill is actually rooted in a fundamentally different approach to getting electricity from its source to our living room light switches.

First, eliminate the 10-12 percent annual profit that Berry says now flows from ratepayers to faraway investors via both CMP and Emera Maine, which serves northern and eastern Maine.

In its place, use low-interest revenue bonds, at a cost to ratepayers of about 3 percent, to purchase the two utilities’ transmission and distribution assets for a newly formed, nonprofit Maine Power Delivery Authority.

Bottom line, Berry said, “that’s $325 million per year that wouldn’t be leaving the state. And that translates to about a 15 percent reduction in our transmission and delivery costs, which are among the highest in the nation.”

CMP hasn’t reacted in detail to Berry’s yet-to-be-printed bill, other than to suggest that the benefit projections are sketchy and the whole thing sounds unconstitutional.

But Berry, while fully anticipating full-throated opposition from the utilities and their lobbyists, has been pleasantly surprised so far by the depth of support the idea has attracted “from both sides of the aisle.”

Yet to be determined is where Gov. Janet Mills will come down on it. So far, spokeswoman Lindsay Crete has said only that Mills “shares the goal of reducing electricity costs for Maine people and businesses” and will see how the measure progresses this legislative session.

“What I hope is that (Mills) and her new energy director take a good, hard, open-minded look at it and try to poke holes in it, do everything they can to assess that it is sound,” Berry said. “And ultimately, I do hope that they’ll sign off.”

Berry also hopes that as our collective temperature rises over CMP’s seemingly endless snafus, Mainers grasp that the frontline workers for CMP, hamstrung by investor-driven cost-cutting, are not the villains here.

“I think people are mad at Iberdrola,” he said. “They’re not mad at the line workers and the billing specialists who are doing the very best they can under horrible circumstances. And who are incredibly frustrated at having to be the public face of a Spanish monopoly that’s not treated them well and not treating the customer well.”

Under the rosiest scenario, Berry expects it would take at least two years for the Maine Power Delivery Authority to become operational.

Meaning Maine is in for a long, contentious fight – assuming this thing gets any traction at all in the coming months.

Still, even now, a few things are worth remembering.

To those who say this kind of forced divestiture is unheard of, you’re wrong: Maine forced the utilities to sell off their power-generation assets two decades ago.

To those who say publicly owned utilities can’t work on a statewide scale – Maine currently has several operating at the community level – wrong again: The entire state of Nebraska has been running on public power since the mid-1940s.

Finally, for those CMP/Avangrid/Iberdrola customers who see the transfer of any business entity from the private to the public sector as a surefire way to screw things up, one question:

How much worse can things get?

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