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Next step for Maine’s climate goals: Proposed laws to make them reality

Some new proposals for environmental legislation in Maine are aimed at specific goals, such as speeding up weatherization efforts in Maine homes, or expanding solar energy use and evolving battery technology to store the power at night. Others are broader, such as conserving more land to sequester carbon dioxide, or asking Maine residents to bond $50 million to help communities adapt to a rising sea level.

But taken together, dozens of ideas being promoted by lawmakers this year represent the next phase of state government’s aggressive effort to address a rapidly changing climate, embodied by last month’s release of Maine’s Climate Action Plan.

Landmark energy bills passed in 2019, and subsequent goals set for Maine by the administration of Gov. Janet Mills, have put Maine on a path to becoming carbon-neutral by 2045. But getting to a point where the state’s buildings and vehicles are emitting no more carbon than is being absorbed by trees, soil and the ocean is a tall order.

So as the new legislative session ramps up, several lawmakers and the Mills administration are drafting proposed laws that, in various ways, reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Overall, they would lead to a wholesale shift in the way power is used and generated, expanding renewable energy and electrifying the transportation and heating sectors, a process called beneficial electrification. It’s a transformation being pushed in other Northeast states, including Massachusetts and New York.

“The implied message is that we need to electrify everything,” said Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, co-chairman the committee dealing with energy issues. “Writ large, we need to switch to clean electricity for the bulk of our energy use.”

This transformation also includes strategies that create jobs for Maine residents, such as insulating homes and installing heat pumps and solar panels. It is central to Mills’ goal of doubling jobs in Maine’s clean-energy sector to 30,000 within the next nine years. Those new jobs also are intended to help Maine recover from layoffs tied to the coronavirus pandemic.

To be beneficial, though, electricity will have to be affordable and reliable during stormy weather. For some lawmakers, transforming the utility sector from a private, regulated monopoly to one of public ownership is an essential way to get there. So woven into the tapestry of more than 50 climate-related bills are controversial measures to “restore local ownership” of electric utilities and create a power generation authority.

Also in play are a handful of proposals aimed at crippling the controversial New England Clean Energy Connect, or NECEC, power transmission line, which would carry hydroelectricity from Quebec to Massachusetts.

Neither of those efforts is likely to gain support from Mills. She signed on to the stipulation that gave NECEC its initial state permit, citing the potential to reduce fossil fuel use in the region. Mills also has shied away from past bids to create a consumer-owned power authority to replace Central Maine Power and Versant Power, the state’s two largest electric utilities.

Instead, look for Mills to advance some form of omnibus energy bill. Details are still being worked out, according to her energy office, but one element may call for further contracts between utilities and clean-power producers, mainly solar and wind. The Maine Public Utilities Commission is currently seeking a second round of proposals from generators, after 17 projects were selected last fall. It’s an outgrowth of an earlier law to increase the share of renewable energy generation to 80 percent by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050.

But some of the legislative building blocks that would form a foundation for renewable electrification will face resistance from Republicans, based on bill proposals being drafted.

For instance, the co-chairman of the energy and utilities committee, Sen. Mark Lawrence, D-York, has a proposal to encourage research to support the state’s fledging offshore wind industry. That’s a priority for Mills and many Democrats.

But in opposition, Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, is drafting a bill to prohibit offshore wind development. A plan announced in November by Mills to create a wind research project more than 20 miles offshore has triggered concern among fishing interests. Most recently, Mills is proposing actions to ease those concerns, including asking the Legislature to approve a 10-year moratorium on wind development in state-managed waters. But fishing interests have largely rejected her attempts to ease concerns, setting the stage for conflict in the Legislature.

Republican opposition also may emerge around the 10 or so proposals to authorize general fund bonding for a host of climate-related ambitions, from weatherization and land acquisition to connecting Aroostook County – where developers want to build large biomass and wind projects – to New England’s electric grid.

Bonding isn’t a good idea when the state’s economic outlook is uncertain, in the view of Rep. Beth O’Connor, R-Berwick. A fiscal conservative, O’Connor said she has mixed feelings about electrification and the costs needed to make it happen. While it’s worthwhile to be prepared for the impacts of climate change, she said, Maine is a small state that contributes little to the global problem and should focus on more immediate issues, such as the coronavirus pandemic.

“What we do in our little speck of Maine doesn’t amount to a hill of beans,” she said, “but it sure costs a lot of money.”

But without new money, many Mainers will be unable to make the transition in their lives to an electrified economy, according to Rob Wood, director of government relations and climate policy at The Nature Conservancy in Maine.

“I think it does make sense to bring forward some bond proposals,” he said. “Interest rates are at an all-time low. It seems like a pretty reasonable way to raise revenue right now.”

Hannah Pingree, who heads the governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future, said Mills signaled when she announced the final Maine Climate Plan in December that she sees a “robust investment package” as part of a strategy to battle climate change and get laid-off Mainers back to work.

Pingree, a former legislative leader, noted that bond issues require a two-thirds majority of the Legislature to pass.

“We’re looking forward to bipartisan discussions on that,” she said.