In his May 21 radio address, Gov. Paul LePage essentially linked Maine’s relatively high price of electricity with Maine law requiring an annual increase in our Renewable Portfolio Standard, the amount of electricity that is generated by renewable energy and distributed here in Maine. It’s a weak link that has already been rebuffed by Maine’s largest newspapers and the Legislature, which rejected his so-called “Act to Reduce Energy Prices for Maine Consumers.” But a number of his arguments or “facts” bear further discussion.
First, while Maine’s electric rates are the 12th highest in the nation, they are the lowest in New England and, for that matter, the Northeast, with the exception of Pennsylvania. The primary reason New England’s electricity rates are the some of the highest in the country is because New England gets little of its electricity from the cheapest and dirtiest fuel source, coal. But compared to the states we are most like and whom we compete against, our electric rates are the lowest.
Second, the governor’s idea of a subsidy is quite selective. While the average cost attributed to the effort to diversify our power sources for electricity is at most 40 cents a month — or less than ½ of 1 percent of a monthly electric bill, and that number is based on conservative estimates and is likely even lower — our electric bill is full of other “subsidies” borne by rate payers, such as the costs of storing and ultimately disposing of nuclear waste from Maine Yankee or the cost of transmission upgrades by Central Maine Power or Bangor Hydro.
Providing some incentive to develop renewable energy and diversify our fuel base was a policy decision that Republicans, Democrats and independents all supported. If the governor wants to change that policy, he should say so and not hide behind populist jargon against subsidies.
Third, Mainers have had, and will continue to have, a choice as to the mix of energy — renewable, fossil fuel or nuclear — they wish to buy. That choice has nothing to do with this governor or the bill he offered. Rather, it has to do with the bipartisan efforts of prior Legislatures and administrations, most recently last year’s 124th Legislative, which revised the program to be offered by the Public Utilities Commission for residents and small businesses this fall.
That choice is not the same as encouraging the diversification of our fuel base from being grossly reliant on natural gas — cheap now but notoriously volatile as to pricing — to getting more energy from our tidal, wind, biofuel and solar resources.
Fourth, as noted by ISO-New England, increasing the amount of renewable wind energy to 20 percent of the market share will result in regional savings of $650 million-$1.4 billion. Already, residents in northern Maine have seen a 10-21 percent price decrease in their standard offer from New Brunswick Power, a result, in part, of the electricity generated by the Mars Hill wind farm.
To suggest that the costs of increasing Maine’s RPS by 1 percent a year are being “picked from the pockets of hardworking folks” as Gov. LePage did in his radio address is the epitome of political disingenuousness. Greater consumer choice will not decrease costs unless the governor plans to support construction of a coal-powered power plant in Maine.
The best way to leave money in the pockets of hardworking folks over the long term is to develop the natural energy resources we do have — wind, solar, tidal and biofuel — and reduce the amount of energy we use through greater efficiency, such as weatherizing homes, using efficient appliances and reexamining how and when we use electricity.
Sean Mahoney is director of the Conservation Law Foundation in Maine.