Sen. David Woodsome (R-York Cty.), Rep. Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham), lobbyist Jim Mitchell, Maine Renewable Energy Association Director Jeremy Payne, NRCM lobbyist Dylan Voorhees & LePage’s energy advisor, Jim LaBreque, at a forum in Portland on September 7, sponsored by E2Tech.
Sen. David Woodsome (R-York Cty.), Rep. Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham), lobbyist Jim Mitchell, Maine Renewable Energy Association Director Jeremy Payne, NRCM lobbyist Dylan Voorhees & LePage’s energy advisor, Jim LaBreque, at a forum in Portland on September 7, sponsored by E2Tech.
Four months from now, Maine will begin a first-in-the- nation experiment when it phases out the popular net metering program, a policy that allows homes and businesses to sell power produced on-site, such as rooftop solar panels, back to the grid at the standard retail price. The move comes as a result of a Maine Public Utilities Commission decision to gradually reduce compensation for the power they produce, even if it is generated and consumed on-site and never makes it to the grid. The new rule would also likely allow utilities to charge ratepayers for the cost of installing new meters. A coalition of environmental groups and solar companies are challenging the decision in court, but in the meantime, the Spanish-owned utility Central Maine Power is facing a fierce backlash for lobbying to defeat a bill that would have partially reversed the PUC’s decision.

At a clean energy forum last week in Portland, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham) — co-chair of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology (EUT) Committee — argued that while CMP claims that net energy billing customers are causing electricity costs to go up, the cost of wholesale electricity has actually gone down over the past decade while transmission and distribution (T&D) costs have spiked 270 percent. He added that CMP earns its profits by building out transmission lines, not by generating electricity.

“CMP is owned by international shareholders. This is a monopoly T&D company,” said Berry at a forum at the University of Southern Maine in Portland last week. “With a regulated monopoly there is no competition, it’s just a matter of telling a story and hoping to influence regulators. Having good relationships with regulators, you get your [transmission] build-out approved and therefore you can overbuild the grid. And with that you have all but guaranteed profits for shareholders of 11 to 14 percent.”

However, Maine Chamber of Commerce representative Jim Mitchell, a lobbyist who helped defeat the solar bill, acknowledged that T&D fees have risen, but that CMP made the investments to ensure grid reliability.

“There is a very substantial benefit to having a robust, reliable transmission system,” said Mitchell. “Obviously, we don’t want to have blackouts or brownouts — that’s an economic peril…. If you don’t have robust transmission, the best, most efficient generators won’t necessarily be able to deliver their electrons when they’re needed.”

He said that one way to bring down energy costs is to build out natural gas pipeline infrastructure to relieve pipeline constraints on the coldest days of the year during high demand, as about half of New England’s generators are powered by natural gas. Last year, a Massachusetts court struck down the pipeline tax, effectively halting a similar effort in Maine to charge ratepayers for the cost of private pipelines. Without public subsidies coming down the pipe, the two utilities Eversource and National Grid, along with pipeline operator Enbridge, decided to pull the plug on their proposed $3.2 billion Access Northeast pipeline in June. Still, Mitchell maintained that distributed energy like solar and other resources are decades away from being able to affect prices during peak demand hours.

“Wintertime is when you can’t get gas to generators,” said Mitchell. “The peak hour is 7 p.m. It’s pitch black, at my house at least. Solar won’t solve the problem that we’re confronted with lack of gas infrastructure, nor will renewables including wind.”

Berry countered that while the cost of natural gas is low now, fossil fuel prices are very volatile and “today’s success can be tomorrow’s crisis.”

But the debate is more than just about solar or natural gas. It’s also about whether governments should continue to subsidize large, centralized power plants and fossil fuel pipelines with big, expensive transmission lines and substations or if some of that money would be better spent supporting innovative, decentralized grid technology that will allow consumers to generate their own electricity. But while new renewable power technologies are rapidly changing the energy landcape, for now fossil fuel companies and utility investors have a stranglehold at the federal level and in most states.

 


Although solar electricity capacity increased 900 percent between 2009 and 2015, according to US Energy Information Administration estimates, a July NY Times investigation noted that new solar installations have declined by 2 percent. And part of the reason for that drop, the Times found, is an intense lobbying effort by investor-owned utilities.

The utility industry trade group Edison Electric Institute, of which CMP and Emera Maine are members, has waged a relentless war against distributed energy resources in statehouses across the country in response to technological innovation in distributed energy and the plummeting cost of solar panels. Since 2013, utilities and corporate front groups sponsored by the billionaire Koch brothers have helped kill net metering in Maine, Hawaii, Arizona and Indiana. In addition to the thousands of dollars spent on lobbying to defeat Maine’s solar bill, CMP also recently hired PUC Commissioner Carlysle McLean, who voted to phase out net metering. CMP lobbying firm Serra Public Affairs also hired Gov. LePage’s daughter Lauren LePage last month. 

At the E2Tech forum last week, CMP CEO Sara Burns snapped when confronted by Boothbay Harbor solar installer Mike Mayhew about the company’s lobbying tactics.

“For people to stand up and say we’re against solar, we’re against renewables, is just not factual. It’s not fair and it’s not what the issue is,” she said. “The issue is, is the net metering policy the right policy for Maine today and going forward? I do not believe it is. I don’t believe it’s a fair and transparent policy.”

Burns insisted that increasing solar installations will not affect the company’s business model, but it could result in cost shifting to electric customers who don’t have solar because solar producers use the grid when the sun isn’t shining. However, numerous studies have shown that the supposed cost-shift is not a major issue. A recent study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory concluded that “the effects of distributed solar on retail electricity prices are, and will continue to be, quite small compared to many other issues,” such as transmission costs. 

“Among the issues explored in this paper, future electric-utility capital expenditures are expected to have, by far, the greatest impact on the trajectory of retail electricity prices,” the authors of the study wrote. “That is not to say anything about the potential benefits or prudence of such investments, but clearly this is an area where regulatory oversight can play a crucial role in managing retail electricity price escalation.”

It added that as solar costs continue to decline and more people get access to solar photovoltaic technologies, cost-shifts from distributed solar will become more similar to those of energy efficiency. And a 2015 study commissioned by Maine Public Utilities Commission found that rooftop solar actually is worth more than twice what net energy billing customers currently receive in part because it helps decrease the need to build out more transmission lines to meet peak summer electricity demands.  

“The fact is that distributed generation is part of the solution to rising T&D rates,” said Dylan Voorhees of the Natural Resources Council of Maine during the debate. “And I think that before long there will be a backlash that will swing the pendulum hard in the other direction.”

But for now, all eyes are on the court challenge to the PUC rule and the 2018 gubernatorial election when Gov. LePage will finally be replaced. Because as Sen. David Woodsome (R-York Cty.), the EUT Committee co-chair, put it, “Next session I don’t see a hell of a lot getting done, to tell you the truth.”