The campaign promoting a consumer-owned electric utility in Maine acknowledged Wednesday that it wasn’t able to gather enough signatures for a ballot initiative in 2022 and will continue to collect names for a 2023 attempt.

Our Power, the group promoting the campaign, blamed the impact of the pandemic, winter weather and millions of dollars in opposition spending by Central Maine Power’s parent company for coming up short last year.

“In 2021,” Our Power said in a news release, “(we) got closer than ever to creating a consumer-owned utility to replace the state’s politically powerful and notoriously poor-performing investor-owned electric utilities – Central Maine Power and Versant.”

Our Power said it had collected nearly three-quarters of the roughly 63,000 required signatures within three months.

“We’re in it for the long run,” said Stephanie Clifford, Our Power’s campaign manager, “and forging ahead until we get the job done. Every signature is valid for twelve months, and our ongoing efforts will soon give Mainers a choice.”

But Willy Ritch, executive director of the CMP-funded opposition group Maine Affordable Energy Coalition, said state residents they contacted thought the proposal was a bad idea. Extending the debate into 2023 will actually diminish support, he said, not increase it.

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“The proposal to seize CMP and Versant would create a $13.5 billion debt that everyone would have to pay off through higher electric bills,” Ritch said, “which is why almost everyone who learns about this proposal for government-controlled power is against it. The longer the debate over government-controlled power takes, the more people learn about it. And the more people learn about it, the less they like it.”

Three outside observers agreed that supporters may have missed their best, short-term chance by failing to certify a ballot question for this November’s election. A hotly contested race for governor and potential rematch for the 2nd District congressional seat are expected to boost voter turnout.

“If I was pushing this option in front of voters, I’d want to have the biggest turnout I could,” said Mark Brewer, professor of political science at the University of Maine. “This is not a good outcome for them.”

Brewer agreed that the pandemic likely hurt signature-gathering efforts. Our Power said it was able to gather signatures at hundreds of polling stations on Election Day last November. But at the same time, a record number of people voted absentee for a referendum-only election. And those who came to the polls may not have wanted to interact with canvassers, Brewer said.

A supporter of consumer-owned power and long-time consultant for publicly owned utilities agreed with Brewer’s assessment.

“I think it will be more difficult to pass consumer-owned power in 2023,” said Gordon Weil, a former state energy official and utility consultant. “You’ll have a smaller electorate. Nothing else, potentially, would bring out a large number of voters compared to this fall.”

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Weil, who contributed to the Our Power campaign, said CMP also would be able spend heavily in the next year to influence voters, at levels Our Power can never match.

But it is possible that Our Power can motivate enough Mainers to turn out for consumer-owned power in an off-year election, said Barbara Alexander, a former consumer assistance director at the Public Utilities Commission. That’s what happened last fall, she said, with the successful ballot question campaign against CMP’s New England Clean Energy Connect transmission line.

“It’s the same people,” she said. “It’s all designed to generate, ‘I hate CMP.’ ”

Alexander is critical of the proposal because of her assessment that it will result in higher rates. One factor between now and November of 2023, she said, is whether residents feel that state utility regulators have the tools to hold CMP and Versant accountable for rates and reliable service.

“The public’s view of this might be impacted by how the PUC shows its capacity to regulate, to respond to poor performance,” she said.

PINE TREE POWER

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Advocates have been working since 2019 on efforts to replace Maine’s two investor-owned utilities with a nonprofit, consumer-owned company. With the proposed name Pine Tree Power, the new utility would be run by a board elected by Mainers and managed by a private-sector operator. It would issue debt against future revenues to purchase the assets of CMP and Versant. How much that debt would impact rates, and for how long, is under debate.

Pine Tree Power would be an antidote to the high costs and reliability problems plaguing CMP and Versant, according to supporters. They began collecting signatures last summer after Gov. Janet Mills vetoed a bill that would have teed up a similar referendum question. It was the second time such a bill failed to make it out of the Legislature.

But CMP and Versant have been fighting the effort, which they call a scheme to seize the state’s electric grid in a government takeover. They warn that the fight will be tied up in court for years, and that ratepayers ultimately would have to pay off more than $13 billion in debt, a figure disputed by supporters as being too high.

Through a political action committee called Maine Affordable Energy, CMP’s parent company spent heavily to convince residents that the consumer-owned power plan is an unnecessary and costly idea.

Year-end reports filed with the Maine Ethics Commission show the group has spent more than $2.9 million in its bid to defeat the proposal. Avangrid Management Co., a subsidiary of CMP parent company Avangrid, is the sole donor. The data show that more than $1 million was spent for social media and online ads, with $975,00 going to a national media and strategic consulting firm, Left Hook. Polling cost $193,500.

By contrast, roughly 96 percent of donations for Our Power were from individuals, including a handful of above-$12,000 donors. The group was able to raise $256,956, and spent $143,770 on campaign staff and consulting.

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