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LePage seeks to remove cap on Maine hydropower

Gov. Paul LePage is once again trying to do away with a 100-megawatt limit on hydropower in Maine.

The cap was put in place several years ago to encourage renewable energy generation, and it exempts wind power. LePage says the cap prevents Maine from accessing cheaper power from Canada, and he’s trying the get the Legislature to agree.

In 2009, Maine lawmakers imposed the 100-megawatt cap on power generators seeking a renewable resource designation. The limit was seen as a way to promote the development of clean energy production, but for the last 5 years, LePage has been trying to get rid of the cap.

LePage says what it has actually done is prevent Maine from accessing cheap hydroelectric power in neighboring New Brunswick and Quebec.

Rep. Beth O’Connor, a Berwick Republican, is sponsoring the governor’s effort, and she told the Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology that hydropower would be exempted from the cap in the same way that large-scale wind power is. Better yet, she says the cap should be scrapped altogether.

“If we are truly interested in renewable energy we should allow every form to compete in a fair market,” O’Connor says.

Opponents of lifting the cap, however, say that Maine currently has no offers from Canadian utilities, and that there is currently little to no transmission capability from Canada into Maine. They argue that changing the current law would jeopardize the business model adopted by existing renewable energy generators who could conceivably be forced out of the market by a big utility such as Hydro-Quebec. O’Connor argues that possibility does exist.

“But it could also lead to new innovative technology in investments in an effort to build a better product by those very same renewables,” O’Connor says.

“It is a pure protectionist policy, that’s what it was designed for: to protect in-state renewable resources,” says Patrick Woodcock, who directs the governor’s energy office.

He rejects claims that removing the cap will reduce business investment in the state or halt Maine’s efforts to adopt clean energy alternatives to fossil fuel generation.

“This has increasingly become a red herring argument,” Woodcock says. “I have been director of the governor’s energy office since January 2013. Since that time I have received zero companies come into my office saying we are looking to invest in the state because of our renewable portfolio standards.”

Regardless of Woodcock’s claims of interest in the state’s renewable portfolio standards, opponents to lifting the cap say there are other reasons the state should hold the line.

Norman Laberge, who represents the Passamaquoddy Tribe, says the big beneficiaries of the bill would be the large Canadian hydropower companies whose policies have made life difficult for Canada’s native people, The First Nation. Laberge says they are the Passamquoddys’ allies and their interests align on environmental issues such as the transportation of tar sands oil and hydropower.

“There is resistance to bring tar oil into the United States and the same should be applied to any major hydro projects in Canada that would come into Maine,” Laberge says. “This bill would facilitate large projects and it would impact the first nation community.”

The bill faces further review by the Energy, Utilities and Technology committee.