Why electric cars aren’t right for Mainers — right now

By Tom Walsh, Special to the BDN
Posted Sept. 01, 2010, at 6:16 p.m.

All the media attention being given to the emergence of electric cars clouds the issue of the deep hole Maine has dug for itself in terms of meeting its energy needs.

You can count on one hand the number of lower 48 states that have higher residential electricity rates than Maine, which makes plugging in an electric car to charge its batteries a costly proposition indeed. And, while electric cars may reduce the consumption of gasoline, the electricity they burn is generated in Maine largely by burning natural gas. Just how does this represent a net reduction in carbon emissions?

The high price of electricity in Maine can be traced to 1998, when then-Gov. Angus King signed into law new electric utility regulations that forced Maine’s utility companies to abandon their generating facilities and instead buy electricity on wholesale markets. Good old free-market competition, the governor assured us then, would drive down prices.

Never happened. Instead, since the new regulations took effect in 2000, the price of generating residential electricity in Maine has more than doubled. In fact, there are only four other states in the continental United States where residential electricity is more expensive than it is in Maine. And Maine’s commercial-industrial rates are through the roof, too.

A decade later, former Gov. King is now a major investor in land-based wind farms in Maine. And he stands to make a bundle.

As part of the regulations King signed into law in 1998, the price Maine residents pay for electricity is set largely by the cost of fueling the turbines that generate that electricity. Companies using natural gas to generate electricity have fuel costs of around 10 cents per kilowatt generated. Companies such as King’s that use wind to generate electricity have fuel costs of zero.

But, guess what? The regulations King signed into law stipulate that all producers get the same rate, regardless of their fuel costs. That means the wind guys — King among them — get 10 cents, the same as the natural gas guys.

It’s been very clear for a very long time now — 10 years and counting — that Maine’s electrical utility “restructuring” boondoggle doesn’t work. It may be working for those invested in wind farms, but it hasn’t brought down the price of electricity, as promised. Never has. Never will.

King knows it, the Legislature knows and certainly you know it, every time you open your utility bill. Bottom line is that this whole mess needs to be revisited, but no one has shown the political will to call a mistake a mistake and to try, try again.

Instead, Maine has put all of its energy eggs in a basket that doesn’t even exist — deep-water, offshore wind farms.

In the meantime, unless you’re fueling your new electric car in Idaho, North Dakota or Missouri, which are among the states with residential electric rates that are half those in Maine, your new electric car is likely not saving a dime nor is it having any meaningful environmental impact.

Tom Walsh of Gouldsboro is a science writer.

http://bangordailynews.com/2010/09/01/opinion/why-electric-cars-arenrsquot-right-for-mainers-right-now/ printed on July 29, 2014