Gov. LePage speaks about his view on energy policy at a press conference last week. (Photo: Governor’s Office)
Gov. LePage speaks about his view on energy policy at a press conference last week. (Photo: Governor’s Office)
In a rare press conference last Friday, Gov. Paul LePage unleashed a tirade against three members of the Maine Public Utilities Commission (MPUC) for a recent decision regarding electric rates paid to solar power producers. The governor, who made the remarks in front of a display of little dollhouses, said he was “enormously disappointed with the PUC,” all three members of which he appointed, because the cost of solar “has brought us from being the twelfth highest energy costs in America down to 11.”

“The only authority I have is to make appointments and I’ll be very honest. I’ve said it before, If I could fire all three right now I would,” said LePage, adding, “I would ask them to resign in a heartbeat.” 

In a radio appearance Tuesday, the governor repeated his call for the MPUC commissioners to resign, accused PUC Chairman Mark Vannoy of buying into “special interests,” and vowed to replace Commissioner Carlisle McLean when her term expires next month. Prior to McLean’s tenure on the MPUC, she served as LePage’s Chief Legal Counsel and Senior Natural Resources Policy Advisor.

MPUC’s controversial new rule, which is also opposed by environmental groups and solar companies, will reduce the compensation solar power producers receive for the energy they produce. Under current net energy billing (NEB) rules, homeowners and businesses with grid-tied solar arrays receive credits equal to the standard retail rate for the excess energy they send to the grid. The unused credits go into a “bank” to be used to purchase additional power from the grid when the sun isn’t out. Under MPUC’s new rules, the current rates for all existing NEB customers and new customer installations occurring before January 1, 2018, would be grandfathered for 15 years. However, next year, new solar customers would see their rates incrementally decreased over the following 15 years. 

LePage, who wanted the PUC to eliminate net energy billing immediately, argued that solar is “not a sustainable industry” because the standard retail rates paid to solar power producers are “above market” and don’t cover the cost of transmitting the electricity. However, solar advocates point to a 2015 MPUC-commissioned study which concluded that  the value of solar power produced in Maine is worth twice the current retail rate because it displaces more expensive fuel sources, creates less air and climate pollution, adds more price stability and energy security to the state’s energy portfolio, and reduces the need to build more power plants to meet certain peak electricity demand times.

The Hydro Dream

“I thought that [the MPUC] understood that my only request … on energy is this: lower the cost of energy and do no harm to the environment. And if you did that then what we would be doing is we would not be picking solar energy, we would not be picking wind energy, we would not be picking hydro energy,” said LePage, who also supports subsidizing a private $1.5 billion natural gas pipeline to serve electricity plants in New England. “We would 

not be doing any of that. We would let the markets determine how they would lower the cost without damaging the environment. All I’m asking for is to lower the cost and do no harm to the environment. If we did that, folks, you would have a whole lot of hydro energy coming down from Canada.”

LePage has long advocated for purchasing more power from publicly owned hydroelectricity plants in Quebec as the plants offer subsidized rates to its residents at less than half the cost than the average New Englander pays per kilowatt hour. Hydro-Quebec currently supplies about a quarter of the electricity load of Vermont, which has the second-highest electric rates in the country, but the governor has never explained why Quebec would sell to Maine at below market rates. 

The governor noted that Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut are currently in negotiations to purchase renewable power from Quebec so “if it’s not competitive it won’t be on the plate.” He added that his administration is “going to try to get onto that RFP with Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island” and “put a strong effort” to make Maine a conduit to transmit clean energy to the southern New England states.

 


However, the three states already announced the winners of the Tri-State Clean Energy RFP last October. The winning bids included 306MW of solar and 155MW of wind, but nothing from Quebec. The biggest winner was the Maine company Ranger Solar, which bid 220MW of solar capacity spread across a number of utility-scale projects in Maine, Connecticut and New Hampshire, according to the renewable energy news site Recharge. Later this spring, Massachusetts will put out a separate RFP for more clean energy, which could include Quebec hydro power. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for clarification.

Solar Not the Reason for High Electricity Rates

When asked by a reporter why he believed that solar power is the cause of high electricity rates given that the transmission cost for Central Maine Power’s 2,600 solar customers is only $1.7 million per year, LePage admitted that it isn’t causing high costs now, but that MPUC’s rules to reduce rates for solar producers will dramatically increase the number of new rooftop solar panels.

“Our estimates say it’s going to be $40 million by the end of this year because everybody, you’re going to get paid to put a solar panel on your roof,” said LePage. “It’s going to skyrocket when everybody takes off and starts putting up a solar panel.”

The governor dismissed another reporter’s insistence that the new MPUC rule is actually more conservative than the current solar policy. The half-hour energy lecture left many industry insiders flummoxed. 

“The governor claimed in his press conference that solar policy is so complex that not many people understand it,” said Vaughan Woodruff, a Pittsfield-based solar installer and chair of the Committee on Renewable Energy. “Then, with disjointed responses to reporters’ questions, he spent much of the remainder of his press conference demonstrating just how confused someone can be when he has spent very little time examining the issue.”

Denies Supporting the Biomass Bailout

Later on in the press conference, another reporter pointed out the inconsistency of the governor opposing favorable  rates for solar, but approving the $13.4 million taxpayer bailout to the wood biomass industry last year. LePage said he didn’t support the bill, but that he had “no choice” but to sign it because “99 percent of the Legislature” voted for it. The measure passed the House 104-40 and the Senate 25-9.The governor also blasted the MPUC for responding to the directive he signed by awarding the subsidies to four biomass plants in Ashland, Fort Fairfield, West Enfield and Jonesboro. 

“Was I in favor of the biomass bill? I was very much against it,” said the governor. “In fact, that’s the second mistake that the PUC made. They went out there and there were several plants in the state of Maine. They were supposed to issue an RFP. There was an RFP. Two companies came in. They were supposed to issue a contract. What did they do? They split it in half. So you’ve got one group that’s going to get some money. They’re not putting any money into the plants. They’re antiquated 1980s technologies, they’re taking the subsidy and they’re going to sit on it for two years. And in two years they’re gonna come back and say, ‘Anymore subsidy, guys? If you don’t give us more subsidy we’re going to close.’”

The governor added that subsidizing the biomass industry without subsidizing the saw mills and paper mills is bad policy because “you’re taking a high-grade valuable product in the woods and you’re chipping it up and burning it.” But he added that subsidizing cutting and burning wood is much preferable to supporting solar energy.

“And if I was to subsidize somebody,” LePage added, “I’d subsidize somebody working in the woods over somebody just putting a panel on the roof and then going away.”