By Bill Kaufmann
Some Maine residents are denouncing Enmax’s earmarking of US$8.4 million to prevent a power utility from coming under state ownership.
Enmax, which since 2020 has owned Versant Power in the New England state, is lobbying to maintain private utilities operations that could be ended depending on the outcome of a November referendum.
Versant, along with Central Maine Power Co., which is owned by a Spain-based firm, are opposed to a proposal to bring the state’s two largest utilities under consumer-controlled Pine Tree Power.
“Maine would like to do what Calgary did years ago — have a publicly owned utility,” said Silkman, CEO of consultant firm Competitive Energy Services in Maine.
“We would like the citizens of Calgary to ask Enmax to butt out (of the referendum) — I’m sure if the shoe was on the other foot, the citizens of Calgary would do the same.”
Silkman said he suspects few in Calgary know of Enmax’s investment in Versant, which would mirror Maine residents’ awareness of the Calgary company’s involvement in their state’s electricity market.
Versant — which entered the Maine market on a $1.8-billion deal completed in 2020 — provides an annual dividend to Enmax, its parent company.
Enmax’s total dividend paid to city coffers in the past year was $82 million — the previous year it was $62 million.
According to Enmax’s 2022 financial report, Versant Power’s net earnings for that year were C$131 million.
Maine Residents Also Deserve Public Ownership: Advocate
Maine residents — who are facing ever-increasing electricity costs — deserve to enjoy the same benefit instead of seeing that money sent out-of-state, said Silkman.
He said Spanish-owned Iberdola, which controls Central Maine Power Co., is allied with Enmax in opposing the Pine Tree Power vision, pouring $18 million into the referendum campaign.
The Maine Ethics Commission website states Enmax’s Maine Energy Progress political action committee has so far earmarked $8.4 million for the effort.
Together with Central Maine Power’s investment, “it’s 20 or 30 to one in terms of spending (compared to Pine Tree’s campaign),” Silkman said.
“Because Versant is spending a lot of money, I suspect their internal polling shows they have a good chance of losing . . . that could be better spent on the people of Calgary.”
Aside from the dividend benefit, public ownership would also have borrowing advantages, meaning “there will be savings for Maine consumers, no doubt,” said Silkman.
Proponents of the change that would see Versant and Central Maine Power acquired through negotiation say the state’s ratepayers would save $9 billion over 30 years.
Maine, Silkman added, can’t count on foreign-owned utilities to upgrade its grid in response to climate change, which will cost billions of dollars and would be cheaper for a publicly owned utility to do.
“Enmax isn’t spending nearly the amount of money needed to serve the energy needs of Maine consumers,” said economist Silkman.
That’s led to both foreign-owned utilities to rank at or near the bottom of customer service satisfaction rankings, he said.
Enmax Says Its Presence in Maine is Beneficial
In an email, Enmax said its acquisition of Versant and its referendum efforts haven’t affected Calgarians’ electricity rates and that its presence in Maine benefits both Calgarians and those in the New England state.
“The Maine Public Utilities Commission conducted a rigorous process to ensure Maine would see net benefits from the purchase, and confirmed residents would,” it stated.
“This (Pine Tree) proposal is not in the best interests of our customers or the State of Maine and would not result in better service or lower rates.”
The company said it’s opposed the same proposal twice in the past.
Enmax has No Choice but to be Involved in Referendum Campaign: Councilor
Enmax has no choice but to involve itself in the referendum campaign, said Calgary’s Ward 9 Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra.
“The ballot proposition is a major setback to the time and effort put into the new business plan, so Enmax has to do what it can to protect the investment we’ve made,” he said.
He said that years ago, Enmax pursued a vertical integration model to maximize profits but that’s proven less effective than Edmonton-based Epcor’s duplication/expansion policy.
“The move into Maine was Enmax’s pivot into that better value position for us shareholders,” said Carra.
It’s hard to say how much a loss in the upcoming referendum would cost Enmax and Calgary taxpayers, he said.
“If the proposition passes, the game plan would shift to preventing loss in the final settlement, but hopefully we don’t get to that point,” said Carra.
Photo by Alvin Engler