How Maine's Pine Tree Power plan confronts climate change (2023)

Editor’s Note:The following story first appeared in The Maine Monitor’s free environmental newsletter, Climate Monitor, that is delivered to inboxes for every Friday morning. Sign up for the free newsletter to get important environmental news byregistering at this link.

It’s now January, and much as it pains me to say, Election Day will be here before we know it. Mainers can expect to hear a lot in the coming months about two likely ballot initiatives that deal with electric utilities — specifically, questions of whether and how to replace the investor-owned Central Maine Power and Versant Power with, as the Secretary of State’s office plans to phrase it, “a new quasi-governmental owned power company governed by an elected board.” AKA:Pine Tree Poweror the consumer-owned utility debate.

This fight is already well underway and promises to be bitterly contentious, down to the very language we use to talk about it. Themain proposalwould create a privately-owned nonprofit with a publicly elected board, which would effectively take over the infrastructure and workforces of Central Maine Power and Versant Power. CMP has backed arelated referendum, just submitted to the Secretary of State forcertification, that would limit the ability of this new kind of entity to borrow more than $1 billion without voter approval. Both initiatives will go to voters in November if the legislature doesn’t pass them.

As in the case of 2021’s referendum against the CMP corridor transmission line, we’re facing a perfect storm of potential voter confusion here — wonkiness, double negatives, competing language, dire political claims. There’s much more in-depth reporting and fact-checking to be done on the practical implications of both of these proposals. But today, I want to talk broadly about the stakes.

The wonderful editor under whom I learned to report on climate change — Cori Princell, now of the New England News Collaborative (hi Cori!) — always told me to remind people of the stakes. What is actually on the line when we debate what kind of entity should be in charge of how we get our electricity? One answer is climate action — who benefits, who pays and who has a seat at the table as we transition off fossil fuels, and how quickly it happens.

Rising carbon emissions are already causing rising sea levels, worsening storms, droughts, fires and deadly heat. Our electric service providers have a huge role to play in forestalling these impacts — these utilities are of almost singular importance in the push to electrify our homes, cars and other parts of life now powered by oil and gas.

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Besides accelerating or delaying our progress toward a livable future, the way we handle this transition might line foreign investors’ pockets, make renewable energy savings more or less accessible, or pile onto the electric bills that many Mainers already struggle to pay every month.

Government or corporate control

Ania Wright, the youth representative to the Maine Climate Council, a Sierra Club organizer and one of the lead petitioners on the Pine Tree Power proposal, argues that a nonprofit utility will be able to invest more efficiently — with more public input and accountability — than a traditional utility can in the electric grid overhaul needed to facilitate decarbonization.

“If we choose to stick with CMP and Versant, all of us Maine ratepayers will bear twice the cost for that investment,” Wright said in an emailed statement in response to questions from The Maine Monitor. “No profit-driven shareholders or Christmas bonuses for CEOs means more money in your pockets each month, and more money in our communities too. This affordable investment … means lower rates, even while some of those rates go to pay off the initial purchase price.”

Wright’s campaign touts a2021 economic analysisthat quantifies these lower rates. They point toseveral small communitieswith consumer-owned utilities that they say have done well on renewable energy adoption. And they note that Nebraska, which has all community-run utilities, is anoutlier among red statesin setting climate goals.

Willy Ritch, who leads the CMP-funded campaign against the consumer-owned utility and in favor of the “No Blank Checks” referendum on borrowing limits, had answers to these examples. In response to emailed questions, he argued that these small towns are too small to make a fair comparison to Maine, and said Nebraska and others on the list are still using plenty of carbon-heavy fuels.

He shared a2021 Wall Street Journal article about obstacles to renewables adoption by rural electric cooperatives — and another, from 2018 in Grist, where the former mayor of Boulder, Co., expressed regret that his city sunk time into working against its utilities instead of with them in this arena. (The Pine Tree Power campaign argued that Boulder’s consumer-owned utility effort helped push the city’sinvestor-owned utilityforward on climate change.)

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Ritch also noted that utilities don’t have direct control over the fuel mix powering the grid. New England’s energy system is “deregulated,” meaning a company like CMP can’t own both energy generation facilities and the poles and wires to distribute that energy. The same would be true for the nonprofit model.

Still, through lobbying in Augusta and more opaque venues like the New England Power Pool, these utilities retain plenty of influence over energy policy and grid planning decisions — about, for example, paying to keep fossil fuel plants online in the name of reliability. (You can read astory I did in 2018about why this matters, and learn howclimate activists recently got a foot in the doorof New England grid oversight.)

Ritch argues that a publicly elected utility board would be at risk for political corruption.

“Putting elected politicians in charge of the grid means special interests will be able to use campaign contributions to get their way when it comes to how we run the electric grid,” Ritch said. “If a fossil fuel company that doesn’t want us to switch to renewables wants to get their people elected to a government-run power board, they can pour money into their campaigns.”

BJ McCollister, a spokesman for Maine Energy Progress, the fundraising group that Versant has supported to campaign against the Pine Tree Power referendum, echoed this in an emailed statement.

“Mainers depend on safe, reliable, affordable electricity to power their lives, which is exactly why a political takeover of our electric grid is so risky,” McCollister said.

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Political status quo a mixed bag

Under Gov. Janet Mills, Maine has been rated a leader on climate action, with relatively rapid renewable energy growth and a comprehensive, aggressive decarbonization plan. CMP and Versant have been part of this, with recent developments likenew ratesdesigned to incentivize and adapt to electrification.

But they’ve also struggled. CMP, for example, has acknowledged in Public Utilities Commission proceedings that itdid not do enough to preparefor what’s now a backlog of requests to add new solar arrays to the grid. In 2019, lobbyists forCMPandVersantraised concerns about the state incentives that led to this solar boom.

Likewise, there was intense debate over a bill last year, which Icovered for Spectrum News Maine, that sought more accountability measures for CMP and Versant — seen by some as Gov. Mills’ answer to the consumer-owned utility plan. The law that eventually passedrequires more climate planning by the investor-owned utilities and includes a path to a replacement if they fail.

Political influence may be inevitable — but Seth Berry, the former state legislator who got an initial version of the Pine Tree Power plan passed in 2020 (it was vetoed by Mills), argued voters should take control where they can.

“We would never turn over our schools, roads or hospitals to a foreign, for-profit monopoly, and the time has come to restore local control to our energy grid too,” Berry said. “Some things are just too important.”

Berry correctly anticipated that his campaign’s opponents would raise fears about a time-wasting legal battle that will be sure to follow if voters approve Pine Tree Power. Willy Ritch nodded to this: “Time is not on our side in the fight to meet our clean energy goals,” he said. “The legal and bureaucratic process [of implementing a consumer-owned utility] would take years and years to resolve. That’s lost time when we would be fighting over who owns the poles and wires instead of making the necessary improvements to the grid.”

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Andrew Blunt, the executive director of the Pine Tree Power campaign, described this as “CMP’s threats to break the dishes on their way out of the kitchen.” He saidPUC analyses of the planshow “there are no issues like those that tripped up other proposals of this kind, and we are fully confident that the transition will be expeditious.”

As this campaign heats up, the devil will be in these kinds of details as I and others keep trying to pin down the truths behind the rhetoric. I hope to have much more to share with you before November about the costs, benefits and inevitable trade-offs of both the Pine Tree Power proposal and the status quo.

Update: This story has been updated to include a statement from Maine Energy Progress, a ballot question committee funded by Versant Power.

To read the full edition of this newsletter, see Climate Monitor: The “Pine Tree Power” referenda and Maine’s climate future.

Reach Annie Ropeik with story ideas at:aropeik@gmail.com.

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FAQs

How climate change will affect Maine? ›

SLR will affect Maine's entire coast and tidal rivers, causing erosion in coastal beaches, dunes, salt marshes and bluffs; coastal groundwater contamination; and loss of 40 - 75% of dry beach area.

What is pine tree power? ›

What is Pine Tree Power? The Pine Tree Power Company will be a not-for-profit electric utility for those parts of Maine now served by Central Maine Power and Versant.

What will Maine be like in 2050? ›

Environmental damage

By 2050, Maine will likely see between 1.1 and 1.8 feet of relative sea level rise, and potentially between 3.0 and 4.6 feet of sea level rise by the year 2100. A 1-foot increase in sea level in the future will lead to a 15-fold increase in the frequency of “nuisance” flooding.

Which states will be safest from climate change? ›

Minnesota is one of the best states to move to avoid climate change. By 2050, only six days per year are expected to be dangerously hot. That's 15 times fewer dangerous heat days than are expected in the state of Mississippi!

Do pine trees purify the air? ›

Pine trees are known to purify the air around us. Even their scent is helpful in reducing inflammation for people with asthma or allergies.

Do pine trees give us oxygen? ›

Pines are at the bottom of the list in terms of oxygen release because they have a low Leaf Area Index. Oak and aspen are intermediate in terms of oxygen release. Douglas-fir, spruce, true fir, beech, and maple are toward the top of the list for oxygen release.

Do pine trees help air quality? ›

Pine trees are one of the biggest contributors to air pollution. They give off gases that react with airborne chemicals — many of which are produced by human activity — creating tiny, invisible particles that muddy the air.

Is Maine a good place to escape climate change? ›

People in Maine will experience especially increased risks from precipitation, heat, and flood due to climate change over the next 30 years. These risks, through 2050 and beyond, may change depending on how much we reduce emissions in the near future.

What areas will be uninhabitable in 2050? ›

All continents will be affected

Even the majority of the world's warmest and wettest regions have a wet bulb of no more than 25 to 27°C. In 2050, scientists estimate that it will be very difficult to live in South Asia and the Persian Gulf, i.e. countries such as Iran, Kuwait and Oman.

Where will be the best place to live in 2050? ›

A new book examining the forces shaping the future of global migration forecasts Michigan as the best place in the world to live in 2050.

What is the best state to live in due to climate change? ›

Sacramento, California is the best place to live for climate change in 2022. 60% of the top 10 places to live in the U.S. for climate change are in California.

Where is the best place to live to survive climate change? ›

Duluth in Minnesota on Lake Superior bills itself as the most climate-proof city in the U.S., although it's already dealing with fluctuating water levels. Other upper Midwest cities around the lakes, including Minneapolis and Madison, are also likely to be desirable destinations.

What cities in the U.S. will be least affected by climate change? ›

The best cities for climate change
  • Seattle, Washington. Like San Francisco, Seattle doesn't expect to see a drastic increase in days with extreme heat or high heat and humidity. ...
  • Columbus, Ohio. ...
  • Minneapolis, Minnesota. ...
  • Baltimore, Maryland. ...
  • Portland, Oregon. ...
  • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. ...
  • Richmond, Virginia. ...
  • Houston, Texas.
Dec 22, 2022

Do pine trees help climate change? ›

You may already know that the Eastern White Pine tree plays a crucial role in helping to combat climate change by sequestering carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, in its trunk.

How much CO2 does a pine tree remove? ›

According to the Arbor Day Foundation , in one year a mature tree will absorb more than 48 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release oxygen in exchange.

What tree takes the most carbon out of the air? ›

The live oak is the most efficient carbon capturing tree, it being able to sequester some 10,994 CO2 equivalent over its lifetime. Ranking second is the East Palatka holly, with a lifelong carbon fixation of 7,321 CO2 equivalent.

What tree converts the most CO2 to oxygen? ›

Yellow Poplar – Also known as the tulip tree, the Yellow Poplar is considered as the top C02 scrubber as revealed by a New York City study.

What plant converts the most CO2 to oxygen? ›

Pothos is the best indoor plant for oxygen because of its high rate of conversion. It was able to show a 6.5 percent decreased carbon dioxide in an experiment, where the CO2 content was reduced from 454PPM to 425PPM, resulting in higher oxygen levels.

What produces the most oxygen on Earth? ›

Scientists estimate that roughly half of the oxygen production on Earth comes from the ocean. The majority of this production is from oceanic plankton — drifting plants, algae, and some bacteria that can photosynthesize. One particular species, Prochlorococcus, is the smallest photosynthetic organism on Earth.

What tree cleans the air the most? ›

“Conifers offer the best PM reduction because they are an evergreen species,” Nowak says. Unlike deciduous trees, who lose their leaves during winter, evergreen species act as year-round filters.

How much oxygen does a pine tree give off? ›

"A 100-foot tree, 18 inches diameter at its base, produces 6,000 pounds of oxygen." "On average, one tree produces nearly 260 pounds of oxygen each year.

Do pine trees produce oxygen in the winter? ›

In this process, trees also make oxygen. Photosynthesis actually occurs in the green parts of the leaf called chloroplasts. These chloroplasts are what give leaves their color. But as leaves start to lose their green colors in fall and winter, they can no longer do photosynthesis.

Will Maine benefit from climate change? ›

Scientists say it's possible that by mid-century, parts of the state could see some good things come from climate change, such as milder, easier winters, lower mortality rates and an increasing population.

How will sea level rise affect Maine? ›

Sea-level rise in Maine poses a serious threat. It puts at risk coastal habitat for a variety of wildlife, including the Piping Plover and Least Tern, both of which nest on beaches and are of high conservation concern.

Which US states will be most affected by climate change? ›

Worst States for Climate Change: Natural Hazards
  • California.
  • Colorado.
  • New Mexico.
  • Oklahoma.
  • Texas.
Aug 10, 2022

How will rising sea levels affect Maine? ›

The combined impact of sea level rise, storm surge and stronger storms intensified by climate change will result in more damaging storms and floods along the coast of Maine.

Are Maine winters getting warmer? ›

The higher temperatures and less snow have major ripple effects across the state. “If we look at the larger statewide scales, winters in Maine are warming on average, though there is still variability season to season and month to month,” Birkel said.

How does Maine benefit from the clean energy corridor? ›

The Maine Public Utilities Commission stated in its 2019 approval of the project, that the studies show electricity prices would drop between $12 and $44 million per year in Maine. The company claims customers would save $2.72 a month on their bills.

Where does Maine rank in economy? ›

Overview of the Maine Economy

In 2022, the state of Maine has a population of 1,382,641, having grown an annualized 0.7% over the five years to 2022, which ranks it 19th out of all 50 US states by growth rate. Maine's gross state product (GSP) in 2022 reached $62.7b, with growth of 2.0% over the 5 years to 2022.

Which cities will become uninhabitable when sea levels will rise? ›

Cities that could be underwater by 2030
  • Amsterdam, the Netherlands. There's a reason they're called the Low Countries. ...
  • Basra, Iraq. ...
  • New Orleans, USA. ...
  • Venice, Italy. ...
  • Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. ...
  • Kolkata, India. ...
  • Bangkok, Thailand. ...
  • Georgetown, Guyana.
Nov 10, 2021

What US state is most susceptible to rising sea levels? ›

Florida is in the crosshairs of climate change. Rising seas, a population crowded along the coast, porous bedrock, and the relatively common occurrence of tropical storms put more real estate and people at risk from storm surges aggravated by sea level rise in Florida, than any other state by far.

Which states will be most affected by sea level rise? ›

New research finds an estimated 25,000 properties in Louisiana could slip below tidal boundary lines by 2050. Florida, Texas and North Carolina also face profound economic risks.
  1. Sea level rise will shift coastlines — and property lines. ...
  2. The Gulf Coast and Atlantic Coast stand to lose most.
Sep 8, 2022

Where will be the safest place to live in 2050? ›

Michigan, says globalization expert. A new book examining the forces shaping the future of global migration forecasts Michigan as the best place in the world to live in 2050.

Why is the Gulf of Maine warming faster than 99% of the ocean? ›

The Gulf of Maine's location at the meeting point of two major currents, as well as its shallow depth and shape, makes it especially susceptible to warming.

How many feet above sea level is Maine? ›

The Mean Elevation of the state of Maine is 600 feet above sea level. Located in the far northeast corner of the United States, Maine is the largest of the New England states.

Does the Gulf Stream affect Maine? ›

Mills said Maine is “getting more spinoff of that warm water.” As the Gulf Stream pushes further north, it also constrains the flow of the Labrador current, which brings cold water from the Labrador Sea to the Gulf of Maine.

Videos

1. SOLVE CLIMATE BY 2030 Maine Power Dialog
(University of New England)
2. Comparing the Impacts of Climate Change upon Maine and Greenland with Professor Jeff Thaler
(York Public Library)
3. Maine's Changing Climate Special 2021 FULL
(NEWS CENTER Maine)
4. Gov. Janet Mills delivers remarks on climate change before United Nations
(NEWS CENTER Maine)
5. He Tried To Mess With A Royal Guard & Big Mistake
(Daizen)
6. How climate change impacts the Pacific Northwest
(KING 5)
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