Maine Gov. Paul LePage, in a recent weekly message, outlined reasons why Mainers pay such high energy costs.
According to the governor, Maine’s electricity prices are among the highest in the nation, ranking 11 in states with the highest rates. LePage said, “When you see your electricity bill, you should know that rates are artificially high.” This, LePage said, is due to subsidies and something called “stranded costs.”
In common parlance, this means that the reason our electricity rates are so high is because of the taxpayer dollars that go to the solar and wind industries to buoy them financially. Readers of this column may recall that I have long argued that taxpayer funds should not subsidize startup industries in the fields of solar and wind power generation. My reasoning was, and is, that such enterprises should stand alone and whether they prosper or fail should not be predicated upon “contributions” from unwilling ratepayers.
This has nothing to do with such things as tax breaks from municipalities wanting to attract industry, but rather, tax money diverted to these private industries. Capitalism is a great equalizer and companies come and go, according to their own, relative merits. Capitalism also spurs competition and when companies compete, the consumer wins. But in the case of wind and solar, capitalism is displaced by taxpayer-funded subsidies. As Gov. LePage said, “Alternative forms of energy are worthwhile, but they are expensive – and you pay the price.”
Nationwide, a 2015 study from the Energy Information Administration concluded that federal subsidies to wind power are more than 70 times the cost of oil and natural gas subsidies. The same study found that federal subsidies for solar power are more than 340 times the rate for oil and natural gas.
LePage said that while he supports all forms of renewable energy, when electricity rates are increased because of subsidies for solar and wind, ratepayers are paying for their energy twice. “On the front end,” the governor said, “consumers pay for the government welfare these companies need to stay afloat.” LePage went on to say, “On the back end, you pay more in higher electric bills.”
The governor cited talking points from the Natural Resources Council of Maine. NRCM maintains that Maine does not produce enough energy from renewable resources. LePage countered that claim by saying that while Maine uses only about 10 percent of the electricity in New England, we produce nearly half of the total renewable resource-generated energy in New England. Seventy percent of the electricity produced in Maine, according to the governor, comes from renewable resources.
Those promoting wind and solar as the only renewable resources, and thus the most deserving of taxpayer-funded subsidies, are misguided. LePage says that it is “financially irresponsible to favor expensive solar and wind while making use of Maine’s indigenous resources. Nearly 30 percent of electricity generated in Maine, the governor said, comes from our hydroelectric plants, while another 27 percent comes from biomass.
All forms of renewable energy have a place in the market, LePage said, as long as they are not overpriced and companies are (emphasis mine) not living off taxpayer dollars.
Biomass and hydropower
Speaking of biomass, it wasn’t long ago that waste material, including sawmill waste and similar organic matter, was left to decompose. Now, biomass, one of the most renewable resources of all (cut down a tree and another sprouts up), serves us by becoming a source of energy generation. Mainers should be proud of such “homegrown” energy.
Hydropower, though, is quite a different situation. While only an act of God can stop our rivers from flowing, it seems unlikely that new hydro dams will be erected any time soon. Nearly every environmental organization in the state, along with the federal Atlantic Salmon Commission and a private organization of anglers, Trout Unlimited (TU), campaigns enthusiastically for the removal of Maine’s dams.
Indeed, some dams are already gone. But is it really necessary to remove every dam in Maine? One of the biggest reasons for this “no dam is a good dam” policy on the part of TU and the salmon federation is that dams block passage of anadromous (seagoing) fish species. But that needn’t be so. Fishways, something like steps on a ladder, allow for migrating fish to ascend dams with little difficulty.
And who says a dam must extend across a river? A partial dam blocks no fish, and yet can produce electricity. Maine has abundant safe and renewable resources that we can enlist in our own energy production. All we need do is take advantage of what we already have. And yes, all taxpayer-funded subsidies to wind and solar companies should end. We owe our citizens that much.
Tom Seymour is a freelance magazine and newspaper writer, book author, naturalist and forager. He lives in Waldo.
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