Short days and frequent snows can make Maine winters seem gloomy. But for renewable energy companies and supporters, the gloom has persisted for the last eight years under a governor openly hostile to solar and wind energy. With the 2018 election, a pro-environment Democratic governor and Democratic majorities in both chambers of the state legislature were swept into power.
“One of the more frustrating things over the last eight years has been the inability to have a conversation around a shared goal that is based in reality,” said Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association (MREA). He said they’re now looking forward to having “a positive, fact-based discourse around energy policy.”
Rough Going for Renewables under Gov. LePage
The outgoing governor, Paul LePage, a Republican, did his best to kneecap solar and wind development.
He opposed a 2012 ballot initiative requiring Maine to obtain 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, calling it a “job killer.” In 2014, he introduced legislation to eliminate the state’s wind-power generation goals. He repeatedly attacked solar energy mandates and net metering as subsidies for the wealthy.
Full retail net metering was available to Maine consumers until April of this year. Then, said Phil Coupe, co-founder of Revision Energy, an employee-owned solar energy contractor, “The LePage-controlled Public Utilities Commission was finally able to inflict a deep anti-solar wound in the industry by introducing its gross metering program.”
Under the new rule, consumers who have grid-connected solar panels lose part of the credit they get for power sent back to the grid. Transmission and distribution credits step down each year from 90 percent to zero over 10 years. “It’s like growing your own tomatoes and having the grocery store charge for those tomatoes,” said Coupe.
Earlier this year, LePage issued an executive order that prohibited new wind energy projects in portions of the state while establishing a secret commission to study the supposed effects of wind turbines on tourism.
Turning a New Page for Clean Energy
Governor-elect Janet Mills, Maine’s first female governor, has put wind and solar at the top of her environmental agenda. Among other priorities, her energy policy specifically calls for restoring net metering and passing legislation to support the development of wind power.
In Maine, the state legislature passed multiple renewable energy initiatives in the past year — but they were vetoed by the current governor.
— Janet Mills (@JanetMillsforME) October 29, 2018
Mills also has promised to change the regulations that limit participation in community solar projects to nine members, a rule which restricts the practical size of the solar array for such projects and makes participation prohibitively expensive for low-income residents.
“You can’t really build economies of scale,” Coupe explained. It’s meant a loss of business for Revision Energy and jobs for Maine. After completing 10 projects, he said they gave up on pursuing more community solar in the state. “It was no longer economically viable.”
Maine Idyll Community Solar Farm in Freeport, Maine. Credit: Courtesy of Revision Energy
Changing Winds for Wind Power
Maine leads New England in wind power, generating 20 percent of its electricity from wind, but no new projects have started since 2016. With new leaders in Augusta, Maine’s capital, MREA’s Payne expects two major projects to move forward next year.
Weaver Wind in Hancock County is a 22-turbine, 72.6-megawatt project that has just begun the permitting process. Downeast Wind, a $270 million coastal project in rural Washington County held up by the LePage executive order, will deliver 90 megawatts when built.
Power Line Struggle
As governor, Mills is sure to soon face one contentious item that has brought environmentalists and fossil-fuel generators together against the state’s largest electric utility.
After New Hampshire rejected a proposed 180-mile transmission line that would have brought Canadian hydro power to Massachusetts while providing no benefit to the Granite State, Maine became the next choice. Central Maine Power, under a 20-year contract with Massachusetts, wants to build a 145-mile, 1,200-megawatt transmission line in the western part of Maine.
Environmental groups, including the AMC, question whether an energy transmission line proposal will reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions in the region. https://t.co/jhnrNi85bh
— Appalachian Mtn Club (@AppMtnClub) November 8, 2018
MREA is opposed. “We have failed to see the benefit to Maine,” said Payne. He explained that the conduit offers no opportunity for Maine renewable energy suppliers to connect and sell power to Massachusetts, and none of the hydro power coming through from Canada will be available to Mainers.
Two natural gas power plants and a biomass plant in Maine also object to the project, known as New England Clean Energy Connect. They worry that cheap hydro power sold by Hydro-Quebec could make their operations uncompetitive.
For its part, Central Maine Power says the project will create 1,700 jobs in construction each year for the next four years and save Maine ratepayers $40 million a year for the next 20 years. The company also estimates a reduction in carbon emissions amounting to 265,000 metric tons annually.
A study commissioned by the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Council of Maine, and MREA challenged that claim, concluding that, because Hydro-Quebec also buys low-priced fossil fuel power on the energy market, this project would have no net effect on greenhouse gas emissions. “Instead the transmission line would redirect existing generation and enable Hydro-Quebec to profit from ‘green-washing’ dirty, fossil-fuel power,” the organizations said in a press release.
The study also found that the project would likely hinder development of additional renewable energy projects in Maine.
— NRCM environment (@NRCMenvironment) November 16, 2018
The outgoing governor, LePage, strongly supported Central Maine Power’s transmission line. The Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) has delayed its decision on the project until March 2019, when the term of the current LePage-appointed chairman, Mark Vannoy, expires.
Two other state agencies, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Maine Land Use Planning Commission, also need to weigh in.
Janet Mills will have an opportunity to appoint a new chair of the Maine PUC when she takes office. Prior to the election, she told the Bangor Daily News that she had “very serious questions” about the proposed transmission line.
But in an interview with the Boston Globe following the election, Mills said that she wants to see mitigation of the environmental impact as well as concrete benefits to Maine consumers “before putting the welcome mat out for this project.”
Mills will have to navigate a path that won’t betray her most ardent supporters in the environmental community, who are unlikely to change their minds.
Sue Ely, an attorney with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, was unwavering in a news release: “The [Central Maine Power] transmission line would do nothing to reduce harmful climate pollution while it would harm wildlife, habitat, and recreational resources.”