In early February, Maine’s utility watchdog held the first in a series of public workshops, part of a new participatory approach to planning the future of Maine’s electric grid, called “integrated grid planning.”
The stakes are high for Maine. If we do this poorly, utilities’ interests will continue to dominate, resulting in high costs to Maine ratepayers and unnecessary, overbuilt infrastructure. If we do this right, we’ll meet the needs of Mainers and build a flexible, low-cost resilient clean energy grid.
What is Integrated Grid Planning?
Integrated grid planning, or holistic grid planning as it is also called, is an attempt to step back and see the power system in its entirety across the tangle of misaligned incentives, vested interests, and information asymmetry that stifle progress today.
For 100 years, utilities have been building and operating large generators, turning them up and down to meet demand. But today the climate crisis demands that we add clean, renewable energy at all scales across the grid as rapidly as possible—and then match demand for electricity with that clean supply through a dynamic, flexible, responsive network.
This change represents the biggest growth opportunity for utilities in more than a century, but it also represents an unprecedented threat to their status quo.
We are in the midst of a rapid proliferation of powerful consumer technologies, in the form of rooftop and community solar, battery storage, programmable thermostats and heat pumps, and electric vehicles (EVs). These technologies carry promises of clean energy, clean air, cost savings, resilience, independence, and personalized and localized solutions. But unlocking this full spectrum of benefits—to consumers, to communities, to the grid system, to society at large—requires taking a very thoughtful approach.
The disruption to the power sector affects both our electric utilities and the outdated regulatory paradigm used to hold these companies accountable. With clean energy technology adoption poised to accelerate through new federal incentives, it won’t be long before electricity customers will have the means to “defect from the grid” or chose to be less reliant on it, leaving the least able to pay with a disproportionate chunk of the bill. We need to get this right, and soon.
It’s against this backdrop that integrated grid planning is gaining momentum across states as a new regulatory approach to take this challenge to the status quo head on and try to find better ways to plan, build, and operate the grid to serve the interests of Maine people—not our utilities.
What’s Happening Now at the Public Utilities Commission?
Even before Maine lawmakers passed integrated grid planning into law last year, energy experts had been calling for Maine to adopt this practice for years. The statutory requirements are prescriptive, including requiring a broad public process at the outset, but also leave a lot to the discretion of the Public Utilities Commission (PUC). That’s why public engagement will be so important to make sure that it’s implemented effectively and equitably.
The PUC is in the very early stages of developing what will become an iterative process every five years to make sure that the utilities are working to achieve the state’s climate and greenhouse gas emissions reduction requirements.
The first workshop reviewed current investment planning practices used by utilities. The Natural Resources Council of Maine hosted an expert panel debrief, which you can watch to get up to speed.
The next workshop should be scheduled for March, at which we’ll hear about Maine’s Non-Wires Alternatives process with an eye to how that work can be synchronized with grid planning. In case you’re wondering, this means exactly as it implies: finding alternative solutions to the costly upgrades to electric infrastructure that are proposed by utilities at the expense of ratepayers.
The full series of these public workshops will be geared toward developing a planning directive that the PUC will issue to the utilities. That planning directive will include the specific requirements that the utilities need to incorporate into their plans (specific analysis, methods and tools; assumptions about heat pumps and EV adoption; policies and programs; community outreach, reporting and status updates, etc.). This planning directive will be a critical piece of the puzzle.
Once the PUC issues its planning order, the utilities will have a year and a half to execute the requirements. Then the PUC will circulate the draft plans, followed by another round of public feedback.
Why is it Important for Mainers to Get Involved?
We are in the early stages of what will be a long arc. There are still a lot of unknowns — the PUC has yet to set a schedule of workshops, or determine topics or speakers, never mind mechanisms for monitoring or enforcement. Whether the PUC will be proactive in seizing this opportunity to make sure that clean energy transformation is serving the interests of Maine people is also yet to be seen.
You can track developments and future workshops at the PUC’s webpage for this proceeding: Docket 2022-00322.
We always knew this would be a long process, but the fundamentals are simple: this is about instituting a transparent, participatory regulatory approach to vet utility plans and operations, and ensuring incremental investments in the grid serve longer-term climate action goals.
It all comes down to building a clean energy grid that best serves Maine people. We hope you’ll join the Natural Resources Council of Maine and our partners in continuing to be engaged in this process so we can maximize the benefits for Mainers everywhere.
—by Rebecca Schultz, NRCM Climate & Clean Energy Senior Advocate