Efforts to expand natural gas capacity. Hopes of luring discounted Canadian electricity. Measures to stunt the growth of solar power and discourage wind farms on land and sea.
These actions championed for eight years by Gov. Paul LePage and Republican allies will end on Jan. 2, as a new Democratic governor and Legislature abruptly shift the focus of Maine’s energy policy to boosting local, green-power development and blunting the impacts of a warming climate.
“From warming seas and rising ocean waters to an increase in the tick population, climate change is hammering our state and will have a significant impact on our economy,” said Gov.-elect Janet Mills, responding via email to the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. “As governor, I will prioritize fighting climate change by embracing and advancing a clean-energy future, including, for example, supporting UMaine’s offshore wind research and by providing incentives for community solar and rooftop solar.”
Mills said her administration will focus on reducing the carbon emissions that accelerate climate change and work with communities, especially along the coast where sea levels are rising, to help make them more resilient.
Those efforts will be aided by a Legislature in which Republicans concerned about the costs of clean-energy incentives, especially in the House, can no longer block bills aimed at expanding renewable energy.
“For eight years, we’ve had an administration closed for business for Maine-based clean energy and jobs,” said Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham. “That’s about to change, 180 degrees.”
Berry, who’s expected to stay on as co-chairman of the legislative committee that handles energy matters, said one message from the midterm election is that most Mainers want progress on clean-energy policies.
“It’s a new day for renewables in Maine and the forecast is for sunny skies,” he said.
But that forecast isn’t as clear as it may seem.
Energy policies typically carry embedded costs, in the form of tax breaks, utility rate surcharges or public spending. A challenge for Democrats is to make choices that will advance a clean-energy agenda that makes consumers feel they’re coming out ahead or, at least, not being hit with higher bills.
Mills didn’t directly answer a question regarding the willingness of Mainers to pay to fund a clean-energy economy. But she said she plans to work closely with the Legislature on policies that, among other things, would “create jobs and grow our economy, and not contribute to an increase in our energy costs and ratepayers’ bills.”
Berry answered a similar question this way: “We need to make sure the benefits outweigh the costs of any measure we enact.”
Debate over costs and benefits has been at the center of energy policy for decades.
Maine is the nation’s most petroleum-dependent state, where six in 10 homes are warmed by oil and virtually all transportation runs on gasoline. All of it’s imported, sending billions of dollars out of state. Conversely, roughly half the state’s net electricity generation comes from hydropower and wood biomass and – despite opposition – 20 percent comes from wind.
That sounds impressive, but overall electric rates are driven higher by cold-weather spikes in the cost of natural gas, used to fuel many power plants in New England. So while Maine’s average electric rates are the lowest in the region, they are 12th highest in the country.
The high cost of energy has been a signature issue for LePage, but he largely came up short. He unsuccessfully tried to coax cheaper power out of Quebec and was part of failed regional efforts to get utility customers to help pay for new gas pipelines. He was, however, able to block efforts that favored Maine-based renewables, complaining that they imposed extra costs on Mainers.
He was especially critical of a billing practice that reimbursed homeowners with rooftop solar for 100 percent of the retail cost of the electricity they sent back to the grid. LePage described the practice, known as net-metering, as shifting costs onto lower-income Mainers to subsidize the solar installations of wealthier Mainers.
LePage and a key energy adviser, Jim LaBrecque, harbored such animosity toward solar incentives that it became a litmus test for legislators. For three years running, LePage was able to sway enough House Republicans to uphold his veto of bills meant to increase solar installations, in each case by three or fewer votes.
That dynamic will be gone. The new mix of lawmakers could create a more collegial environment where more Republicans are willing to work with Democrats to find compromises on clean energy, according to Sen. David Woodsome, R-North Waterboro.
“We’re not going to have the do-or-die attitude of LePage and LaBrecque and a few others,” said Woodsome, who served with Berry last session as co-chairman of the energy committee. “Every time you mentioned solar, the hair on their necks went up. You couldn’t reason with them.”
It’s too soon to say how House Republicans will react to a clean-energy agenda.
Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, the current House Republican leader, helped LePage derail many clean-energy overtures. In a scoring of lawmakers by the Maine Conservation Voters, Fredette earned a zero in 2018 and a 22 percent lifetime score.
The incoming House minority leader, Rep. Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, has a less strident record with the advocacy group. She scored 63 percent in 2018, and 43 percent lifetime, with a mixed record on solar bills. Dillingham didn’t respond to a request for comment.
RENEWED SUPPORT FOR SOLAR?
Solar policy is high on the list of things likely to get immediate attention this session.
Maine lacks the rebates, tax credits or exemptions that drive robust solar growth in some states. And in the past two years, rules at the Public Utilities Commission around how solar power is compensated and metered have seemed punitive to advocates.
Look for attempts in the Legislature to change the PUC rules. And look for the tenor of the PUC to change, as well. All three current commissioners were appointed by LePage and the term of the chairman, Mark Vannoy, expires in March. Mills will get to nominate his replacement, who’s expected to be friendly to clean energy.
Beyond that, Berry and others say, lawmakers might dust off and update a far-reaching solar bill that had broad bipartisan support when it was debated in 2016, but fell victim to a LePage veto. That bill featured new ways to create financial incentives. It also lifted an artificial cap to greatly increase the number of electric customers who could plug into solar through so-called community farms, something Mills said she’s planning to do, anyway.
Besides solar, other priorities are shaping up:
• State energy agency: LePage is operating the agency as an extension of his office, with three people. A failed, bipartisan bill last session aimed to create a Cabinet-level agency with a commissioner, to give Maine more clout in regional policy negotiations. Democrats may revive that bill, and seek money to increase staff and responsibilities.
• Renewable portfolio standard: As do most states, Maine requires a certain percentage of its power supply to come from renewable energy, subsidized by electric customers. But Maine’s law is nearly 19 years old and isn’t working as intended. Tuneup efforts in recent years have broken down amid partisan disagreements. Democrats will be under pressure to craft rules that spur a new round of local investment without hurting consumers.
• Wind energy: LePage’s opposition to wind power and the financial incentives that aid its growth are legendary in energy circles. They include actions that prompted a Norwegian energy company to abandon its test of a $120 million floating wind farm in 2013, as well as forming a secretive study commission on the impacts of land-based wind early in 2018.
Today, an effort by a University of Maine-led consortium to test a floating wind farm off Monhegan is stalled at the PUC over the price of the power contract, while the study commission is working on a report about wind turbines and tourism. Expect Mills and Democratic leaders to try to advance the power contract, which is crucial to federal funding for the project. Any wind panel findings, meanwhile, likely will be dead on arrival.
Mills and Democrats also will confront some energy issues that aren’t as clear-cut, such as transportation.
Cars and trucks are Maine’s leading contributor to climate change. Mills said she’ll support policies that increase the number of electric vehicles and charging stations, but didn’t say how to pay for that.
“It’s a huge example and the elephant in the room,” said Dylan Voorhees, clean-energy director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
Funding options have pros and cons, he said. In some states, money from the general fund or excise taxes provide rebates for plug-in vehicles. Power companies offer discount charging rates in California. Colorado offers an income tax credit.
Weatherizing Maine’s old housing stock is an ongoing challenge. Efficiency Maine and MaineHousing offer various rebate, grant and loan programs. Mills said she’ll tap voter-approved bonds for senior housing and energy efficiency that LePage has declined to authorize.
“The $15 million in senior housing and weatherization bonds will be signed as soon as I take office,” Mills said.
As Democrats develop a game plan, they may find some guidance in a new initiative to develop a broad policy to make Maine energy-independent by 2030.
The effort is being led by A Climate To Thrive, a grassroots group working on a similar goal on Mount Desert Island. Organizers hosted a meeting this month in Augusta that attracted 30 activists and lawmakers.
Part of the discussion focused on drafting a comprehensive renewable energy bill supported by a suite of “building block” bills around solar, wind, transportation and efficiency. Each would have measurable impacts on jobs, economic growth, energy costs and other indicators.
But among some participants, there’s a wariness about trying to do too much, too soon.
Voters in Washington state, for instance, this month rejected a proposed tax on carbon dioxide emissions. It was a first-in-the-nation attempt to raise the cost of driving and heating with fossil fuels, and shift money to clean energy.
“There isn’t a mandate in Maine for every energy idea that Democrats have had over the last eight years,” said Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association.
Payne said it’s important for measures to gain bipartisan support, because the majority of Maine voters are unenrolled. With another election just two years away, they will punish politicians who don’t spend taxpayer money wisely.
“The pendulum always swings back,” Payne said.
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