BRUNSWICK, Maine — Opponents of a new fee proposed by Central Maine Power to charge customers who generate their own alternative energy say the fee would make those efforts unsustainable.
But CMP says the fee is necessary to ensure all customers — residential, business and other entities — pay their fair share of what it costs to deliver electricity to consumers.
Because all customers require the infrastructure — wires, transformers and poles — for electricity regardless of whether they generate some, CMP says all should pay a fee for access to the infrastructure.
The proposed standby fee is part of an overall five-year agreement drafted by CMP that outlines the company’s rates, among other factors.
But Bowdoin College officials and students, as well as other customers who generate some of their own power through alternative energy sources such as solar collectors, say the proposed fee would have “a chilling effect” on continuing efforts to generate renewable energy.
The college generates 9 percent of its electricity, according to spokesman Doug Cook, and will generate an additional 8 percent — 1.65 million kilowatt-hours — when it completes construction of a $2 million to $4 million solar installation, to be built partly on land acquired through a public benefit conveyance at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station.
The proposed fee, Cook said, “is not smart economically and not good public policy.”
He said the college is not opposed to “a reasonable fee,” but argued that the proposed fee is not reasonable.
Cook declined to say what the proposed fee for the college would be, but a March 7 letter from Bowdoin students to the Bangor Daily News estimates it would increase the cost of electricity approximately $170,000 per year — enough to “ultimately lessen the likelihood of future sustainable energy projects both at large institutions like Bowdoin, and in smaller homes and businesses.”
Citing the privacy of customer information, CMP spokesman John Carroll also declined to provide specifics on how the proposed fee would affect the college, but Carroll said the total cost, including the fee, that the college would pay is $692,000.
The Maine Independent Colleges Association, which represents 11 private colleges in the state — including Bowdoin — also officially has opposed the fee.
Just up the road from Bowdoin, at Brunswick Landing, the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority says the fee would unfairly penalize companies such as Village Green Ventures, which plans to build an anaerobic digester and renewable generation facility at the former Navy base.
The plant would generate nearly enough energy to meet the power needs of most of Brunswick Landing, according to Steve Levesque, executive director of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, which oversees civilian reuse of the Navy base that closed in 2011.
Developers such as Village Green would have to absorb increased costs generated by the CMP fee, Levesque said, which would have “a significant dampening effect on our ability to have Brunswick Landing generating its own power, and would make it harder to market Brunswick Landing to another energy-generating company.”
Furthermore, he said, the fee goes against the initial reuse plan for the former Navy base to establish a renewable energy center at Brunswick Landing for the generation, distribution and management of renewable energy as part of a sustainable development grid.
But CMP argues that the fee is only fair because the infrastructure to attach any customer, including Bowdoin or Village Green, to the power grid — wires, transformers, poles — must be in place regardless of whether and when they generate electricity. And that infrastructure must be able to provide 100 percent of the customer’s energy if necessary, Carroll said.
“There is a solar installation, so for maybe four hours a day they provide 100 percent of their electricity, but the other 20 hours a day we have to make sure we have that [ability] in place so we can provide 100 percent of their services,” he said.
Furthermore, Carroll said, if CMP doesn’t collect the cost of serving Bowdoin College and other energy-generating entities from them, “that cost gets priced into everyone else’s rates. For us, it’s a matter of fairness. People who can afford solar, it’s good for them, but they’re usually well-to-do, and if they aren’t paying their full cost, those are falling on … the people who can’t afford those costs.”
Tony Buxton, a Preti Flaherty attorney and general counsel to the Industrial Energy Consumer Group, which includes some of Maine’s biggest electricity users, calls Carroll’s argument “sophomoric.”
Buxton argued that customers should not have to pay for the grid when they are not using it. Instead, he said, “You should have to pay based on the probability of causing the utility to expand its system.”
While paper mills — which are among the members in the Energy Consumer Group — would not be affected by the specific standby fee proposed by CMP because they generate so much of their own energy, the group vigorously opposes CMP’s proposed fee because applying a new fee to the mills “would absolutely be the next step [and] that would put some mills completely out of business,” Buxton said.
“This is a standard national strategy by electric utilities to discourage people from doing things that are better for the environment, that are more efficient, and that may reduce their demand on the utility,” he said. “CMP’s history is one of grudging acceptance of renewable energy owned by someone other than CMP … They want people to pay as much money as they can get people to pay.”
On Monday, Gov. Paul LePage said that the proposed fee is a “non-starter.”
The Maine Public Utilities Commission will hold hearings on CMP’s proposal on April 2 at the commission’s headquarters in Hallowell and on April 3 at the University of Southern Maine’s Abromson Center. The commission is expected to decide the case by July 1, according to spokesman Harry Lanphear.
An earlier version of this report included a quote from Gov. Paul LePage that referred to a different proposed solar energy policy.