March 22, 2018
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Electric Grid Unlocked

Since Colonial days, when Maine’s tallest and straightest pine trees were set aside for King George I, the state’s natural resources have been exploited for the economic benefit of those who live elsewhere.

Wind is the latest Maine resource whose value has been identified by outsiders. In the emerging post-petroleum economy, wind is valued for its potential to produce cheap electricity, and Maine’s undeveloped ridge lands provide prime locations for towers and turbines. This has the potential to make businesses building those towers and turbines a lot of money. This is nothing to quarrel with in and of itself, but Maine policymakers — specifically, the Legislature and the Public Utilities Commission — must ensure that the state’s commercial and residential electricity customers benefit as much as possible from this “resource harvesting.”

Measuring that benefit is a complex analysis, and difficult to explain. Under the current arrangement, Maine is part of ISO New England, a consortium of users in the six states that buys electricity from producers and the companies that distribute the power over networks of wires, such as Central Maine Power and Bangor Hydro-Electric Co.

The largest part of an electric bill for Maine residents and businesses is the cost of producing the electricity, whether by a coal-fired, oil-fired or nuclear plant, hydropower dam or wind turbine. A much smaller part of that electric bill pays CMP, Bangor Hydro and the others within the ISO to maintain those wire networks, and expand them as needed.

If wind power production in Maine greatly multiplies, ratepayers in the six New England states would, in theory, see the cost drop ever so slightly, thanks to the rules of supply and demand. But if Maine users are assessed a disproportionately high percentage of the cost of building new lines to connect southern New England, where demand is high, with the new electricity being generated in northern Maine, we have shortchanged ourselves.

In late 2007, the PUC identified three options for Maine in this new energy era: Leave ISO New England and join with New Brunswick; leave ISO and go it alone; or stay with ISO but negotiate a better arrangement. The third option is the least radical, and as such, is the one most likely to be pur-sued. Earlier this month, the PUC directed Central Maine Power and Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. to pursue a better deal with ISO New England.

For that effort to be successful, the PUC must keep withdrawal from ISO on the negotiating table as a real option. To do that, contingency plans for withdrawal must be developed, at least in cursory form.

“These issues are very difficult yet so significant for the people of Maine,” PUC Chairwoman Sharon Reishus told The Associated Press. “This is not the final act in this play,” she added. The current agreements among CMP and Bangor Hydro and ISO New England expire Feb. 1, 2010. With that deadline in sight, the curtain soon will rise on the final act.

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