Supporting L.D. 1504 with an override vote can thwart efforts to move solar policy backward.
By Vaughan Woodruff, owner of Insource Renewables in Pittsfield
Press Herald op-ed
PITTSFIELD — In the past six years, we’ve heard some absurd energy policy positions and hypocrisy from Gov. LePage. These have ranged from puzzling public comments about the heating benefits of incandescent lightbulbs, uninformed news conferences about Maine’s solar energy policy and the contradictory position that energy policy shouldn’t pick “winners and losers” while simultaneously supporting plans to use Maine ratepayer funds to subsidize a $5 billion natural gas pipeline expansion project and a separate electrical transmission expansion in other states.
The absurdity continued this year as LePage introduced a last-minute bill that would make specific biomass projects eligible for contracts above wholesale electricity rates. This proposal was dumbfounding, as the governor has railed against efforts to modernize Maine energy policy based on oversimplistic claims about what constitutes “above-market rates.”
Last year, this led to ridiculous statements about the impact of solar on electrical rates and escalated to accusing solar professionals of “bamboozling” the people of Maine and telling us we should leave the state. This year, even the Public Utilities Commission became a target of his ire after implementing some of the most anti-solar provisions in the country. His reasoning? The rules didn’t go far enough.
Being outrageous and inconsistent clearly hasn’t been enough for LePage in his crusade against the use of solar energy in Maine. His public attacks on individuals have demonstrated a significant lack of responsible leadership.
In response to then-Public Advocate Tim Schneider’s pragmatic effort to modernize Maine’s solar regulatory policy, LePage referred to his appointment of Schneider, a highly regarded advocate for Maine ratepayers, as “one of the worst, worst decisions” he’s ever made and replaced Schneider. After Cianbro Corp. Chairman Peter Vigue criticized LePage’s messaging on Maine’s electricity prices, LePage called Vigue “self-serving,” though Cianbro wasn’t active in conversations related to last year’s solar bill. Recently, following severe criticism from the governor’s office, PUC member Carlisle McLean sought other opportunities rather than accept renomination.
Based on history, Maine legislators should be wary of putting much trust in LePage’s motivations as they relate to solar energy policy. Though a growing body of evidence shows that increasing the portion of solar in a state’s energy mix results in a net benefit to all ratepayers, the governor has aligned his positions with organizations that are fighting for the benefits of utility investors. His positions have been contradictory and shallow on analysis, and his level of discourse has undermined the ability to utilize the collective expertise of our public and private sectors to move Maine energy policy forward.
A recent Press Herald op-ed by the governor’s technical adviser on energy, James C. LaBrecque, provides some insight into the technical deficiencies of the governor’s positions. Many of his arguments against solar are based on archaic figures that are 60 percent higher than the current costs to install solar and ignore some basic tenets of modern energy policy, such as utilizing electric vehicles charged by solar energy to offset transportation emissions and the ability of solar electricity to reduce fossil fuel consumption by directly powering heat pumps.
The governor’s energy office also continues to pit electrical appliances (heat pumps) against electrical generation technology (solar) as though heat pumps can operate without electricity and solar is incapable of providing power for these appliances. It is remarkable to see such fervor against solar technology, given that it currently provides just 1 percent of the total electricity consumed in Maine. Such exaggeration and misinformation are the result of an ideology that seeks to mislead our debate rather than inform it.
Fortunately, many of the legislators tasked with passing responsible energy policy are siding with reason. This year’s solar bill, L.D. 1504, has a modest and simple aim: to correct an extreme provision of the PUC net-metering rule before its scheduled implementation on Jan. 1.
The PUC rule is so universally disliked that it has injected some refreshing bipartisanship in an otherwise contentious legislative session. After numerous amendments in committee and on the floors of the Senate and the House, L.D. 1504 received strong majorities in both chambers. The bill was vetoed by Gov. LePage on Monday and will be put back in front of legislators for an override vote before the end of the session.
Last year, the Legislature failed to move Maine’s solar energy policy forward, narrowly sustaining the governor’s veto of a proactive effort to replace net metering with a more sophisticated method of reimbursing solar generators for the excess energy they deliver to the grid. This year, legislators face a far simpler decision. By supporting L.D. 1504, they can thwart bureaucratic efforts to move solar policy in Maine backward.
While this year’s solar bill fails to set forward-thinking solar policy, it represents an opportunity for Augusta to get out of the way of progress and important economic development for Maine.