By Adam MacVicar, Global
An upcoming referendum south of the border is generating some concerns for Calgary’s publicly-owned electricity utility Enmax, which is sending money to a political campaign in the northeast United States.
In November, voters in Maine will cast a ballot on a referendum question on whether to dismantle the state’s two largest privately-owned electric utilities to create a consumer-owned utility called Pine Tree Power.
One of those electricity companies is Versant Power, currently owned by Enmax after a deal valued at $1.8 billion was finalized in 2020.
Richard Silkman, CEO of Maine-based Competitive Energy Services and supporter of the Pine Tree Power Company campaign, said the vote comes as Mainers are concerned with the rising cost of electricity and foreign ownership in its electrical grid.
“There are folks that are very worried about the cost of energy and they believe that there may be a cheaper way of providing that electricity delivery service,” Silkman told Global News. “There’s another constituency that views foreign ownership of utilities as being something that’s antithetical to the way in which we ought to organize society.”
According to the Maine Ethics Commission, Enmax has donated $7.5 million so far in 2023 to a non-profit organization called Maine Energy Progress to advocate in opposition of a move to a publicly-owned electricity entity.
The Maine Ethics Commission said the founding organizations of Maine Energy Progress are Enmax and Versant Power.
“A government-controlled utility company is a risk Mainers can’t afford,” Main Energy Progress’ website reads.
The non-profit did not respond to Global News’ request for comment.
Others opposed to the move said it would cost Mainers billions in debt to acquire the assets of both of the power companies.
Lucy Hochschartner, a spokesperson for the Pine Tree Power Company campaign, said the funding is being used to “mislead voters” through political advertising on social media.
“I think most Canadians would be surprised to learn that this company that is supposed to be working for them is spending their money in our elections,” she said. “That’s not small change at all.”
If Maine residents were to vote in favour of creating a consumer-based electricity utility, it would kickstart a process to replace the two privately-owned power companies in Maine, as well as a negotiation to acquire the electricity providers from their parent companies.
An elected board of directors would also be formed to manage the Pine Tree Power Company.
According to Silkman, the move comes as Maine works on climate efforts and would require upgrades to its electrical grid.
“The question is: what’s the best way to move us from where we are today to where we need to be in the future?” Silkman said. “The belief is that the best way to do it is through local control, local decision making, local ownership, and the lower cost of capital that comes with that.”
Since Enmax’s acquisition of Versant Power in 2020, it has sent Enmax a yearly dividend as its sole shareholder.
Similarly, Enmax sends the City of Calgary a yearly dividend with $82 million going to city coffers this year alone.
According to Enmax’s 2022 financial report, Versant Power generated $349 million in revenue in 2022.
“I believe it was $31 million in 2022 taken out of Maine and sent to shareholders in Canada,” Hochschartner said. “That is not working for the people of Maine.”
In a statement to Global News, Enmax said its acquisition of Versant Power was made “to create value and positive outcomes for customers and stakeholders in both Calgary and Maine.”
Enmax said its electricity rates were not affected by the purchase of Versant Power or the paying down of the debt to acquire the company, and customers won’t be charged additional fees or rate increases to offset the cost of acquiring Versant Power, its operations or the referendum process.
“Although Enmax would be entitled under the (U.S.) Constitution to be paid fair market value if the referendum were to pass, Enmax has opposed this proposal, just as it did when it was put before the Maine legislature and rejected twice in the past,” the utility’s statement said. “This 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.”
Enmax said its participation in the referendum is publicly available information.
The statement added that Maine is “working hard to make progress” on its renewable energy goals and Versant Power “strives to be a trusted partner in those efforts.”
The City of Calgary did not respond to Global News’ request for comment.
“The message to the citizens of Calgary is: let Maine do what it wants to do, don’t interfere,” Silkman said.
Mainers go to the polls in the referendum on its electrical grid on November 7.
Photo by James Wainscot