by Susan Sharon
MPBN news story
The Maine Public Utilities Commission is taking public testimony tonight in Portland on a Central Maine Power Co. rate restructuring plan that critics say would discourage Mainers from investing in renewable energy and also raise fixed monthly fees on both residential and business customers. As Susan Sharon reports, several dozen opponents turned out for a public hearing in Hallowell last night to urge the PUC to reject it.
For CMP, the restructuring plan lays out spending and capital improvement goals, and establishes rates over five years. Spokesman John Carroll says that’s good for CMP, and for the company’s 600,000 customers.
“And when we have an agreement then we have a very clear business path for the next five years and our customers have a very clear expectation in terms of what their prices will be and what the quality of services that they’ll receive,” Carroll says.
But contained in the rate plan are two provisions that upset business and residential customers, as well as environmental groups and advocates for renewable energy.
“One is a proposed standby fee, which is actually a specific rate hike just for solar energy producers,” says Fred Greenhalgh, a spokesman for ReVision Energy, a renewable energy company that has put up more than 3,000 solar installations across New England over the past decade.
Greenhalgh calls the targeted rate hike on one group of customers “discriminatory.”
“There are those in the legal community who feel that’s actually illegal by Maine law,” he says, “so we feel that that stands little chance of moving forward.”
Greenhalgh was one of several dozen opponents of the plan who showed up at a PUC hearing in Hallowell Wednesday night wearing bright yellow tee shirts that said: “Solar for Me.” Many object to what they consider CMP’s assessment of solar customers as “freeloaders on the grid.”
“And that line of thinking is incorrect in the sense that solar actually provides the most valuable form of electricity, which is peak power generation,” Greenhalgh says.
Greenhalgh says that’s because when everyone runs their air conditioners on hot sunny days and electricity is expensive, solar installations pump power back into the grid.
But the other big reason for the opposition is that CMP wants to raise the fixed monthly rates it charges residential and business customers, even if some are using less power than others. John Carroll of CMP says it’s a matter of fairness.
“And if you put up solar panels and you have very low usage, you’re actually not paying your full cost to stay connected to the grid. Those costs are absorbed by all the other ratepayers,” Carroll says. “What we’re proposing is something that would simply make a fair rate structure for all our ratepayers, so that somebody who doesn’t have solar panels isn’t subsidizing someone who does.”
Other opponents, including Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, say CMP’s entire rate plan runs counter to Maine’s public policies to lower costs and lower pollution through increased efficiency.
“If you can’t cut your bills as much because CMP has rigged the bills so that your bills don’t go down very much when you are more efficient, that’s clearly adverse to the public interest,” Voorhees says, “and that’s one of the reasons why these proposals to add more fees and more fixed fees is bad for consumers.”
One of the biggest drivers of costs is building more transmission lines to meet more sales of electricity, which, Voorhees says, is the direction the CMP plan appears headed.
The plan is opposed by the Sunday River Ski Resort and the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority in Brunswick, among others.
A decision from the PUC is expected in June. Carroll says CMP is hoping the new rate structure can take effect in July.