February 22, 2020
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Publicly owned utilities will further Maine’s clean-energy goals

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
In this May 28, 2019, file photo power lines power lines converge on a Central Maine Power substation in Pownal.

A vote is expected in the current legislative session on a public buyout of Maine’s two for-profit electricity transmission and distribution utilities, Central Maine Power and smaller Emera Maine. CMP’s failure to deliver decent service or to bill correctly may provide cause enough to get rid of the company. But given the urgency of the climate crisis, is grid ownership an issue on which progressives should be expending time and political capital?

At first glance, it might seem that progressives’ first priority should be expanding renewable generation and backup storage, activities in which CMP and Emera Maine can’t by law participate. But that overstates to a degree the difficulty of getting solar and wind generation built and, more importantly, understates the hurdles to getting fossil fuels out of our lives altogether.

We need an electricity distribution utility that helps rather than hinders that broader energy transition, and a private company like CMP almost by definition can’t be such an agent for change. A public utility can.

The transition not only implies changing power generation to solar and wind, it also requires electrifying almost everything: cars, trucks and buses; heating; industrial processes now powered by fossil fuels; and many agricultural operations. This, in turn, requires more electricity, delivered much more efficiently and dependably than is possible with CMP’s and Emera Maine’s existing grids.

If the energy transition is to come as quickly as the climate crisis demands, however, the increase in electricity use can’t be huge. Clean electricity must be accompanied by equally urgent efforts to boost energy efficiency.

Old-fashioned economics make the move to renewable generation itself a bit less daunting than it appears on the surface. Wind and solar costs have fallen so dramatically that they are now the cheapest way to generate electricity in some places and will soon be cheapest virtually everywhere. Public incentives should still be used to accelerate the process, but it is happening, regardless.

What about the electrification of transport, heating and industry? What about making our energy system more equitable and efficient? A for-profit utility, like any private company, needs to grow its sales and profits in order to placate investors. So it might seem that CMP and Emera Maine would want to hurry electrification along, to the extent that this increases the asset base used to calculate their regulated rates.

If history is any guide, however, the result will not be reliable electricity for Mainers, much less creativity in how power gets to users in this large, low-populated state or in helping us use as little electricity as possible.

With so much set to be electric, we can’t afford to have our power fail the way it does with such disturbing frequency in Maine. Many wires will have to be buried and infrastructure dramatically modernized. Smart meters of the type associated with CMP’s billing debacle will be central to everything. Smart meters can and do work well in most places, but CMP’s use has been problematic.

In many places, upgrading a centralized grid may not be the most efficient way to transition to a renewable, electrified economy. With battery costs down 85 percent over the decade, what works best will increasingly be off-grid solar and wind, with battery and other backup. Such systems can be highly resilient — if they are designed around the particular needs of particular neighborhoods, not corporate profits. But off-grid generation isn’t a solution for-profit utilities would choose, because it doesn’t expand the rate base.

To date, Maine has promoted solar almost exclusively as a net-metering transaction that leaves everyone on the grid and in the rate base. Nonetheless, CMP has fought even this. How much harder will it fight distributed systems? Despite Maine’s admirable goals for cutting carbon emissions, it risks being left behind unless it has an electric utility that is a partner in the effort — a utility that Mainers themselves own and control. It’s a goal everyone, progressives included, should unite around.

Sarah Miller of Camden worked as an international energy and economics journalist and editor. She is professionally associated with the Energy Intelligence Group.

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