The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.
The law of unintended consequences is unyielding.
Particularly when people pass legislation which feels really good, but isn’t fully thought out.
Exhibit A is Portland’s newly adopted, so-called Green New Deal. There is very little “green” in its substance. It creates a bunch of requirements for union-led programs and increases the amounts required from would-be developers to create new housing projects.
However, in the vein of greenwashing, it did add new standards for construction projects taking city money. That’s where the unintended consequence comes in.
Three years ago, Portland voted to borrow $64 million to renovate their four public elementary schools. They issued the debt and started working. But construction, particularly public jobs, can take a long time. So the work was ongoing.
That $64 million was too short from the get-go. Once Portland actually priced its projects, the full scope would have pushed the price closer to $ 105 million. Since voters didn’t give them that leeway, the city had to cut costs and reduce their scope.
Then the Democratic Socialist-led group People’s First Portland pushed its “Green New Deal” all the way to enactment at the ballot box. And now the new requirements are going to increase costs again anywhere from $3 million to $6 million.
So again Portland’s educational edifice will be faced with removing planned upgrades to educational spaces in favor of general building improvements, or asking — in the midst of a worldwide pandemic and economic uncertainty — residents and businesses to reach deeper into their pockets once more.
Which brings us to Exhibit B and another “green” initiative.
“Net metering” policy was a big battleground during Gov. Paul LePage’s administration.
Here’s how it works: a normal home is connected to the grid — say Central Maine Power — and makes payment for the electricity it uses. That payment has two major pieces. Generation is the power plant that actually generates the electric current, like a hydro dam or a gas-fired turbine. Transmission and distribution goes to CMP to pay for all the wires, poles, trucks, substations and other stuff that brings electricity into your house.
However, if you add solar panels to the roof, you become a generator. If your grid power use decreases by half — ostensibly a good thing — your transmission and distribution charges decrease with it. That’s all well and good, but the costs of maintaining all those wires, poles, towers and transmission does not simply decrease. They exist whether you draw power or not. So LePage pushed “gross metering” to assess a fee to help cover the costs.
Gov. Janet Mills moved swiftly upon taking office to undo the gross metering rules in favor of a return to net metering, or charging transmission and distribution costs to consumers only on the net amount they have taken from the grid.
Now, unintended consequences have struck back.
The Maine Public Utility Commission released a report a couple weeks ago that looks at the costs of the net metering policy in the context of a massive solar power boom. The takeaway?
“Traditional” power consumers could be forced to take on significantly higher costs. To the tune of $160 million each year. For a CMP household, it might be an additional $100 annually based on current use.
Those costs only escalate if the homeowner looks to buy high efficiency, electric heat pumps, or buy an electric car. Which changes the math on investment, which could keep people reliant on less efficient heating oil systems or gasoline-powered vehicles. Undermining the carbon reduction goals that advocated net metering in the first place.
It is almost as if the world is a very complex place, and a slight change in one area can cause second-, third- and fifth-order effects.
Maine’s newest Legislature is going to be faced with monumental decisions. They are our lawmaking body, and each time they tinker with the law, something unexpected will happen. So wisdom counsels caution.
They can change a lot of things. But, as I’ve said before, they cannot repeal the law of unintended consequences.