EDITORIAL

When give-and-take is mostly gain: Maine and New England’s energy future

Bangor Gas and other construction crews prepare the side of Bennoch Road for natural gas pipeline installation in Orono last month.
Bangor Gas and other construction crews prepare the side of Bennoch Road for natural gas pipeline installation in Orono last month. Buy Photo
Posted Nov. 25, 2013, at 12:37 p.m.

Piecing together a joint energy strategy from the individual interests of the six New England states is like assembling a puzzle. But that’s what energy officials from across the region have begun working on over the past few months. It’s a promising development in a region that has some of the highest energy prices in the nation and where there’s significant potential to make renewable energy a greater part of the mix.

One part of the region is responsible for the bulk of the demand, and the demand is increasingly for renewable energy — much of it from wind.

Maine, meanwhile, is clamoring for access to more of the cheap natural gas that has a limited ability to make it into the New England market. Energy officials from nearly all of the region are interested in purchasing hydropower from Canada. And investors, sensing an opportunity to capitalize on the region’s changing energy mix, are lining up behind several pending projects to grow the region’s transmission capacity. The three northern New England states are central to those transmission routes.

How does it all fit together for Maine?

Connecticut and Massachusetts are responsible for much of the wind energy demand. Maine is already home to nearly 200 turbines, and it’s likely — almost inevitable — it will be home to more in the coming years as utilities in those more populous states sign contracts with developers proposing Maine wind projects and as Maine develops offshore wind technology.

And Connecticut and Massachusetts have something Maine wants: Proximity to the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and New York, the closest site to New England where natural gas is being extracted. New England needs more pipeline to transport more gas into the region and drive down prices. Additional gas pipeline inevitably would cross through southern New England.

“Each state will have some element of give and some element of take,” said Daniel Esty, Connecticut’s commissioner of energy and environmental protection. “It’s the willingness to work on the package that’s going to be critical.”

Regional collaboration offers the best bet for each state to achieve its desired policy objectives — be it the aggressive clean energy goals of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick or Maine Gov. Paul LePage’s oft-repeated desire for lower energy prices. It’s also a balanced way to achieve the commonly held goal of lower energy prices in the region and to encourage the development and refinement of renewable energy resources.

In Maine, LePage has made the importation of Canadian hydropower and the expansion of natural gas top energy priorities. Regional collaboration offers him the best bet for achieving both.

Maine is working with four of its New England neighbors on an initiative that’s expected to lead to the joint purchase of large-scale hydropower from Canada — either from Quebec or new resources being developed in Newfoundland and Labrador. On its own, Maine doesn’t stand to get as good a deal as it could without combining the buying power of four other states.

On natural gas, it’s reassuring to see an approach emerge in which Maine doesn’t have to go it alone and impose an assessment on ratepayers to purchase new pipeline capacity and spur new pipeline construction. New Maine legislation that took effect this year provides an option for Maine ratepayers to partially foot the bill for new pipeline capacity. But through collaboration, the New England states are looking at alternatives that could prevent the need for a special assessment on Maine ratepayers.

With wind, the probability that more turbines will be erected in Maine brings urgency to the need for an open, comprehensive review and update of the state’s wind energy policy, more than five years after former Gov. John Baldacci’s task force aggressively shepherded the Maine Wind Energy Act into law.

That review should incorporate considerations LePage’s energy director, Patrick Woodcock, raised this spring that Maine’s wind energy policy should be more oriented toward price concerns and ensuring long-term economic benefits to the state.

It should also address concerns about wind turbines affecting the character of Maine’s unique landscape and aim for a compromise that keeps wind turbines off ridgetops universally regarded as places that should be spared from development. And such a review should address the importance of offshore wind to Maine’s future energy mix and economy.

While a regional energy strategy can involve some give and take, Maine stands to gain more from the regional collaboration than it would give up.

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