With the shift in political priorities, lawmakers propose dozens of bills, including ‘a bold idea’: A Green New Deal.
by Tux Turkel, Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald news story
When she was 12, Chloe Maxmin formed a Climate Action club at her school. At Harvard, where she graduated in 2015, she co-founded a campaign calling for the university to sell its fossil fuel investments.
And after running as a Democrat and winning a House seat in November in a heavily Republican district that includes her hometown of Nobleboro, Maxmin is following her convictions as the lead sponsor of a bill to create a Green New Deal in Maine.
The bill would chart a path for Maine to get all its power from renewable sources by 2030, transforming the economy and creating clean-energy-sector jobs. In important ways, it mirrors national aspirations to slow global warming that are embodied in controversial Green New Deal legislation being championed in Congress by another young newcomer, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
“I know it’s a very ambitious goal,” Maxmin said. “But climate change threatens to undermine our entire economy and culture. So we’re putting out a bold idea.”
KEY EVENTS SET THIS MONTH
In Maine, Maxmin’s bill also is emblematic of the surge of energy-related proposals in Augusta this year. More than 60 separate working titles are being proposed for the committee that handles energy and utility matters. At least 10 more are pending for potential hearings in other committees.
Initial proposals, of course, don’t mean much. Language is still pending on many bills, and most will be modified, combined or withdrawn as the legislative session progresses. But their titles indicate the new direction and broad scope of energy policy debate about to take place in Augusta, where Gov. Janet Mills and majority Democrats will embrace clean-energy strategies both as an economic development tool and to blunt the impacts of climate change.
Taken together, they would have the effect of reversing the priorities of former Gov. Paul LePage and his hand-picked representatives to the Public Utilities Commission, who have largely focused on short-term costs.
An early event highlighting the change is a news conference set for Tuesday to announce Maine’s participation in a nine-state coalition readying bills aimed at limiting carbon emission through a market-driven fee system. Rep. Deane Rykerson, D-Kittery, is the lead sponsor in Maine.
The idea of taxing carbon pollution and using the money to boost clean-energy projects and offset electric bills is in play around the country. A plan in Washington state was defeated in November. The concept is strongly opposed by fossil fuel interests and will be fought by Maine oil dealers.
Another key marker will be the reaction to bills set for public hearings Jan. 29, before the energy committee.
One, L.D. 91, has been designated emergency legislation, which means it would take effect when approved. The measure would eliminate so-called gross metering, a rule enacted last year by the PUC for how rooftop panel owners are compensated for power that critics say amounts to a tax on solar installations. It would essentially restore “net-energy billing” to the way it was in 2017.
Also being teed up is L.D. 41, a far-reaching solar bill that, among other things, attempts to replace net-energy billing with a market-based system after 2019. It also aims to boost larger-scale community solar, in which customers can buy into a project not on their property and benefit from a share of the output. Notably, it’s being sponsored by Republican lawmakers.
Other bills would specifically expand community solar projects, which now are limited by a low, random cap on the number of customers who can participate.
WIDE-RANGING ENERGY ISSUES
Other bills would update the Renewable Portfolio Standard, which requires certain amounts of the state’s electric supply to come from sources such as wind, solar and wood.
One proposal would require the PUC to approve a long-term power contract for offshore wind energy, aimed at advancing the Maine Aqua Ventus floating offshore demonstration project near Monhegan.
Frustration over Central Maine Power’s error-prone billing system, as well as plans to build a transmission line for Canadian hydropower, has worked its way into several bills.
One would require a study of greenhouse gas emission reductions from the proposed line. Another would amend the state’s eminent domain laws for utilities.
Also in the mix are bills to prop up struggling biomass energy plants and fund energy efficiency through a surcharge on heating oil and other fuels.
“In the 12 years since I began serving in the Legislature, I have never seen such excitement around energy,” said Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham.
Berry co-chairs the energy committee and is sponsoring several of the bills. The overall effect of these proposals, he said, will be to start a conversation around moving Maine beyond a centralized power grid, to one where electricity is produced sustainably and closer to where it’s used.
That discussion is taking place in other states, according to Chris Rauscher, policy and storage market strategy director for Sunrun, the large, California-based rooftop solar installer. Rauscher, who lives in Maine, said in some California utilities half of all of Sunrun’s solar customers are incorporating battery storage into their systems. Storage can bring down rates by reducing the need for costly power plants during hours of peak demand, and by making the grid more resilient to storms and other threats.
A bill title this session calls for a wide-scale study of the benefits of battery storage in Maine.
COSTS STILL A CONCERN
Ideas like these wouldn’t have gotten far in the LePage years, when any proposal with costs that appeared to be above market prices today was a nonstarter or prone to a veto.
“Everyone had a good sense of where the governor was and it was a very small box you had to fit into,” said Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association. “We’ve spent eight years talking about costs. Now we’re talking about return on investment.”
But investment money typically comes from two sources: utility customers or taxpayers. Often, they are the same. So short-term costs will remain a red flag to many lawmakers, according to Rep. Jeff Hanley, R-Pittston.
“When the dust settles, what does this do to commercial and residential ratepayers?” asked Hanley, the ranking Republican on the energy committee. “If it affects ratepayers in a negative way, I’m always going to oppose those things.”
Solar energy is an example, Hanley said. He’s not against expanding its use, but wants people with panels to pay their fair share.
“I have seven or eight trailer parks in my district and no one has solar panels on their roof,” he said. “Every dollar matters to those people.”
On the national level, the original New Deal was a series of programs, financial actions and public works projects initiated by President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s. The crisis then was the Great Depression.
For climate activists such as Chloe Maxmin, global warming is a contemporary equivalent that needs strong government action. As the legislative session gets underway, reaction to these energy-related bills will be one barometer for how Mainers weigh the costs and benefits of a state response.
In drafting the Green New Deal bill for Maine, Maxmin said her inspiration came from campaigning and hearing concerns voiced by people in her rural midcoast district, southeast of Augusta. She said she’s aware that cost will be a concern.
But working for a small nonprofit called Campaign Earth, she embraces the social movement known as climate justice, a concept that the impacts of global warming are suffered disproportionately by those less responsible for causing it. In her area, that includes lobster fishermen and farmers, who are being affected by warming oceans and more-severe weather.
“You can say that the cost of ignoring this crisis is far greater than what we need to do to protect Maine and our way of life,” she said.