On the final day of the legislative session, Gov. Paul LePage departed from his closing remarks to lawmakers to underscore what he says will be a major challenge for the state next year.
"In 2010, we were ranked number 12th in the country with the highest electricity rates," LePage said. "Yesterday afternoon I received the latest report and we've climbed to number eight."
LePage says the high cost of electricity burdens Maine families and discourages businesses that would like to relocate to Maine or expand existing facilities.
"We are way out of whack with the rest of the country," he said. "We are about 30 percent above the national average as we speak today--before we add on all the state add-ons," he said. "I'm talking simply about energy, transmission and distribution."
"There's no silver bullet for this whole issue, and it is going to be incumbent on this administration not to make drastic changes to a well-thought-out mixture and mix of different alternative sources of energy," says Sen. Barry Hobbins, a Saco Democrat with considerable experience on energy and utility issues.
Hobbins says that the governor's office, lawmakers and energy stakeholders will have to employ a multi-layered strategy to cut Maine's electrical costs--including some energy efficiency suggestions from Environment Northeast, a public policy advocacy group that is sounding the alarm over the costs of $4.75 billion worth of electrical transmission expansions underway across Maine and the rest of New England.
"Maine is a good example as to how the system is broken, we think, in CMP's big new transmission project," says Derek Murrow of Environment Northeast.
Murrow says the planning that went into the $1.4 billion Maine Reliability Project to upgrade the state's electrical infrastructure never incorporated non-transmission alternatives--also known as "NTAs." NTAs include options such as energy efficiency, demand response, smart grid technologies and small scale, clean distributed generation.
Murrow says NTAs represent the future of the state's long-term energy planning. "They're generally things that are on the consumer side of the system--so energy efficiency improvements, controlling demand in peak periods by controlling energy consumption, or installing, say, distributed generation like solar or combined heat and power in an industrial facility," Murrow says. "And these non-wires alternatives can definitely be lower cost and they're also easier to site, have limited impact on natural habitats and people's views and other issues of environmental concern."
"I don't think their analysis is quite as complete as what it should be, in that we're already doing that," says Ken Fletcher, who directs Gov. LePage's Office of Energy Independence and Security. "Now, maybe we can do more, and I think we will do more."
While he agrees with Murrow that Maine can always do more to conserve energy, Fletcher says it doesn't mean that the state has been sitting on the sidelines in the quest to cut energy costs, including identifying ways to reduce demand during peak power periods.
"One of the things that is proceeding is the whole installation of smart meters--that's one of the tools and technologies that's going to allow us to manage our grid in a more effective way," Fletcher says. "We also do lot of work with demand and response. All of that's going on, so I wouldn't want it to be characterized as the only thing that we're doing is building transmission lines, because that's not completely accurate."
Fletcher says he shares Environment Northeast's goal of developing energy policy changes that would help control costs for consumers. He and Gov. LePage plan to review energy strategies for the state over the summer.