No governor can lower your energy bill, or guarantee a business that its rates won’t rise. Nor can he or she slow the pace of climate change and its potential consequences for Maine.
Not directly, anyway.
But Maine’s next governor, through the energy policies he or she pursues, can influence what you pay for energy, send critical signals that encourage or hinder economic growth and guide the degree to which the state embraces renewable power sources that further reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
Mainers have clashed since the 1970s over energy projects and environmental concerns. But today, these debates have intensified in an era of partisan politics and cultural divisions that defy compromise. That suggests the next governor, regardless of the makeup of the Legislature, will face challenges trying to gain broad support for any agenda.
Viewed through a lens of energy policy, this election will be a referendum on the direction set over eight years by outgoing Gov. Paul LePage. It could read: Will Maine build a robust framework for renewable energy, or prop up existing fossil fuel systems?
This question is more complicated than it may seem.
For instance: LePage opposed virtually any form of locally based renewable energy that receives financial incentives, chiefly solar and wind. He championed natural gas expansion and helped revive Central Maine Power’s proposed transmission line through western Maine, to bring hydro power from Quebec to Massachusetts.
For some voters, the CMP project has so inflamed their passions that it will become a litmus test for a candidate’s position on local, renewable power.
But assessing the candidates’ views on this topic won’t be easy. Three of them are hedging, qualifying their support while they seek more information. Only one flat-out opposes the project.
That said, the candidates do draw contrasts in their positions on broader topics that concern many Mainers, ranging from conventional ways of keeping warm to the pace and shape of Maine’s transition to renewable energy.
• New England Clean Energy Connect
CMP’s transmission line proposal, NECEC, is shaping up to be one of the most divisive energy-environmental battles Maine has seen in years.
Alan Caron, one of two independent candidates, is a clear “no.” The power line corridor would be “a wide gash in the wilderness,” he says, bisecting prime recreation areas.
Terry Hayes, the other independent, says she has many unanswered questions about the project, and is withholding her support until she learns more.
Democrat Janet Mills says she’s concerned about the potential environmental impact, and needs to be convinced that the project offers concrete, long-term benefits to Mainers.
Stressing the need to lower energy costs, Republican Shawn Moody seems the most supportive, if he can see a clear advantage for Maine and no long-term damage to whitewater rafting and tourism.
• The next PUC chairman
LePage’s support for the NECEC project is meant to be an institutional vote of confidence, but it is largely symbolic.
The final decision rests with regulatory agencies, such as the Maine Public Utilities Commission. The PUC is a key arbiter in several divisive energy issues, including long-term contracts for offshore and land-based wind farms and incentives for rooftop solar development, all initiatives LePage has opposed.
So here’s where symbolism turns back to substance. The current PUC chairman is out in March. The next governor will nominate a new chairman for a six-year term. That will be an enduring and consequential decision.
Mills says she’d nominate a chairman who would establish regulatory certainty and welcome new renewable energy investments.
“The people of Maine deserve a PUC chair who will put the word ‘public’ back in Public Utilities Commission,” she said.
Moody says the energy sector is too diverse to be overseen by only three people. He’d introduce a bill to add another two, making the body more like the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. One of Moody’s nominations would have a background in renewable energy.
Caron says the PUC needs a leader who understands how emerging technologies making the grid decentralized, similar to how smartphones overtook legacy landline service.
Hayes said she’d look for a nominee with industry experience and the ability to work collaboratively.
• Home heating
The cost of keeping warm is a perennial concern in Maine. LePage heavily promoted switching from oil heat to electric heat pumps. More than 30,000 ductless heat pumps have been installed in the past three years. Rebates from Efficiency Maine, largely underwritten by electric customers, sweeten the deals.
Caron supports that direction. It’s part of his larger goal to make Maine energy-independent in 30 years, which would require a big transition to solar and offshore wind power for heat, light and transportation.
Pointing out that Mainers send $5 billion a year out of state to pay for fossil fuels, Mills backs increased use of heat pumps and wood pellet stoves. She wants half of Maine’s power to come from local, renewable sources by 2025.
Moody also sees a greater role for heat pumps and pellet heat, as well as stepped-up weatherization programs.
Hayes also is on board with heat pump conversions.
But where does the money come from to do more?
Caron envisions a loan program, with energy savings used to pay it back.
Mills would stick with the existing Efficiency Maine rebates.
Moody would shift money from programs found to be ineffective.
Hayes would look for more federal funding.
• Natural Gas
Natural gas is a regional issue and efforts to expand pipelines largely have stalled, for now. But wholesale gas prices impact manufacturers, and all Maine electric customers, because half the region’s electricity is generated with gas. What can a Maine governor do to help lower power costs for these businesses and all Mainers?
Moody wants to encourage more conversions to natural gas. He’d also explore an unspecified concept, in which natural gas-fired power plants not running at full capacity could sell electricity at a discount to businesses and towns.
Mills sees gas as a bridge fuel for the transition from oil to renewables. She’d work with Massachusetts, which has blocked the expansion of the natural gas line.
Caron would seek to use his negotiating skills to forge an agreement among diverse energy interests to support “specific, transitional” pipeline expansion, in exchange for active backing on new solar incentives.
Hayes also sees gas as a lower-cost, cleaner bridge fuel and supports greater access to it.
• Net metering
Net metering pays electric customers for generating power, largely from rooftop solar panels. It has been debated in the Legislature, at the PUC and in court.
Caron wants to see net metering expanded, possibly as part of a package of loans and incentives for solar.
Mills is critical of LePage’s repeated efforts to cut net-metering incentives and would seek to reverse the current policy, at the PUC or through legislation.
Moody backs compensation that is “fair, benefits all ratepayers and reflects that prices change substantially during the seasons.” Of note, Moody’s business took advantage of net metering in 2014, by investing in a commercial solar project at Maine Audubon’s headquarters in Falmouth.
Hayes would explore net metering rate structures with an eye to saving money in transmission investments.
• The Maine Aqua Ventus/University of Maine offshore wind demonstration project
A power purchase agreement to test a prototype, floating offshore wind farm off Monhegan is in limbo at the PUC.
Caron supports the project as a way to establish an offshore wind energy industry in Maine.
Mills says Maine has the potential to become “a wind energy powerhouse,” and the pilot project would strengthen the state’s chances of participating in an evolving clean energy supply chain.
Moody is noncommittal, raising concerns about potential impacts on the lobster and fishing industries.
Hayes also voiced concerns about striking a balance between clean energy development and the state’s other assets.
• Land-based wind
Maine is New England’s top wind power producer, and the state’s 16 commercial wind farms supplied 20 percent of the state’s net electric demand last year. But LePage opposes the financial incentives around wind development. He enacted a ban on most new projects and set up a controversial study commission, purportedly to measure the impact on tourism.
Mills would rescind LePage’s ban, and is supportive of well-sited wind projects to cut fossil fuel demand.
Moody’s position is more in line with LePage. He expresses concern for visual impacts around the Moosehead and Rangeley lakes regions, for instance.
“We can’t be shortsighted in promoting the wind industry at the expense of our tourism industry,” he says.
Caron says he wants to “move carefully,” gaining a better understanding of the long-term costs and benefits.
Hayes opposes LePage’s moratorium. She says she has “rational concerns” about impacts such as views and wildlife habitat, and would look to strike a balance.
Maine lawmakers, and LePage, reluctantly approved taxpayer subsidies two years ago to keep a handful of aging, wood-fired power plants going, because of their key roles in the forest industry. Those subsidies will expire this year, and there’s not much appetite among the candidates for extending them.
Noting the University of Maine at Farmington’s conversion from oil to wood chips, Moody said he’d continue to encourage public institutions to convert to biomass, but not by using taxpayer dollars to bail out an industry.
Hayes indicates that if the industry is right for Maine, it doesn’t need a subsidy.
Caron says the state needs to recognize when a technology is no longer workable and move on.
Mills would continue to support biomass-related jobs, but hold the industry accountable.
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