Maine’s Governor Takes Aim At Renewable Energy Law In Effort To Aid Big Companies

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"Maine’s Governor Takes Aim At Renewable Energy Law In Effort To Aid Big Companies"

Paul LePage

CREDIT: AP/Robert F. Bukaty

Electricity is relatively expensive in Maine, although around the cheapest in New England. Republican Governor Paul LePage thinks he can slightly reduce this cost by altering Maine’s Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS), which is aimed at incentivising in-state renewable energy production.

Maine’s RPS requires that by law 30 percent of electricity consumed must come from renewable sources, with a target of 40 percent by 2017. For four years LePage has been trying to change the law to remove the 100 MW restriction on renewable hydropower as counting towards the RPS. Currently there are no hydropower plants in Maine that exceed 100 MW, but LePage wants to allow large hydropower producers in Canada to provide electricity to the state.

LePage and his top energy adviser, Patrick Woodcock, believe that this change would help lower energy costs which in turn would bring more manufacturing and jobs to the state. However, the effort being put into the change seems to outweigh the benefits, and a thriving in-state clean energy industry can be a job creator in itself.

“We are allegedly the 12th highest,” Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, told the Maine Sun Journal about Maine’s electricity prices. “My understanding is we would probably go to the 15th highest and in the process we would destroy one of the burgeoning industries we have as a state. So I don’t get it. I don’t see what the benefit is.”

Payne told the Sun Journal that renewable energy companies including wind, biomass, and solar had “invested more than $2.5 billion in taxable infrastructure in Maine in the past decade … a figure no other industry has come close to.”

For the renewable policies that have brought this investment, the average homeowner is paying about 60 cents extra per month, according to a review by the Office of the Maine Public Advocate. And Vermont, which is already benefiting from Canadian hydropower, still pays more for electricity than Maine. The primary takeaway is that electricity prices come from a complex labyrinth of factors, and minor changes to renewable energy laws are unlikely to offset bigger forces such as the challenges of obtaining cheap natural gas in New England or the lack of abundant coal.

With this in mind, rather than changing renewable energy policies for little effect, it would be better to focus on what’s working, such as developing a local clean energy supply chain.

“We’ve become known in the Northeast for Maine’s workforce and its capabilities,” Payne said. “That’s something we ought to be selling.”

Maine is also part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a nine-state program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generating power plants. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a way of mitigating climate change — however LePage has recently said that Maine could actually benefit from climate change.

“Everybody looks at the negative effects of global warming, but with the ice melting, the Northern Passage has opened up,” LePage said at a conference on transportation last month. “So maybe, instead of being at the end of the pipeline, we’re now at the beginning of a new pipeline.”

The opening of the Northern Passage would allow for large vessels to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Historically it has been blocked by sea ice, but as Arctic ice reduces the channel is opening up more regularly and for longer. Last summer the first-ever bulk carrier made the voyage. It was carrying coal.

Also last summer, LePage vetoed a bill that would have required state agencies to plan for climate change adaptation as well as establishing climate change adaptation working groups.

LePage is up for reelection this fall in a closely contested race. His Democratic challenger, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, has criticized LePage’s views on climate change as well as his recent moves to restructure Maine’s renewable energy laws.

“Renewable energy is a strategic asset that Maine should look to expand, not undermine,” Michaud said in a statement provided to ClimateProgress by his campaign. “Gov. LePage’s efforts on energy move us backward and threaten a growing industry in our state while also hurting our efforts to combat climate change. Our homegrown renewable energy sector creates jobs, reduces the impact of global warming, protects us from price spikes and keeps prices down so small businesses and Maine families can keep more money in their pockets.”

Part of LePage’s argument for changing the renewable energy laws is that wind power is exempt from the 100 MW limit, giving it an unfair advantage over hydropower. Not only would removing this exemption most likely have little impact on energy prices — but it is backed by outside interests, such as the Koch brothers-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) as part of a coordinated national attack on clean energy.

The bill introduced in the Maine Legislature to include large hydropower as part of the RPS is similar to the “Electricity Freedom Act” introduced in a number of other states, according to an editorial by Phil Bartlett, a Democratic State Senator from Maine. The Electricity Freedom Act manipulates renewable energy laws in an effort to repeal or weaken them. In Maine, it would make it easier to meet RPS goals without having to develop more clean energy technology.

“The attempts by LePage and his allies to dismantle Maine’s RPS represent an embrace of a corporatist approach to Maine’s energy policy, which, if left unchecked, will have serious, damaging consequences for Maine consumers and our environment,” writes Bartlett.

In a summer radio address criticizing Maine’s RPS, LePage said, “too many companies have told me that Maine’s high energy costs prevent them from doing business here.”

However with Maine’s growing clean energy sector and susceptibility to climate change it would seem the common sense thing to do would be for LePage to direct his energy away from what big energy companies want, and do what’s best for the state.

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