If you were listening to the radio on Saturday, you might have gotten the impression that lowering Maine’s energy costs is a simple matter.
But like a lot of things you hear on the radio, it’s not as simple as it sounds.
In his Saturday radio address, Gov. Paul LePage blamed wind power for Maine’s above-average electricity prices, and he said the solution would be more hydro power, especially electricity imported from Quebec.
But wind power plays only a very small role in the price of electricity in Maine. And there is no reason to believe that imported hydro power would cost less than what is generated now in Maine by burning natural gas.
The complicated truth is that there isn’t a zero-sum competition between wind and hydro power, but an exercise in finding the balance between renewable sources and fossil fuels. We don’t have to choose between wind and hydro — we can and should have both. Our economy and our environment depend on us getting the right balance between renewables and fossil fuels.
Wind power is a very small driver of the cost of energy in Maine.
According to a 2012 study by London Economics, the primary cost drivers of electric rates are energy costs (mostly natural gas prices) and delivery charges, which include building and upgrading transmission lines.
Renewable power sources, including wind, made up only 3 percent of 2012 electricity prices. Anticipating a large expansion of wind capacity that is planned in Maine, the study’s authors projected that by 2017, it would still be only 3.1 percent.
LePage continued to promote the myth Saturday that cheap hydroelectric power from Canada could be ours for the asking and would lower Mainers’ electric bills. For evidence, the governor pointed out that the average household in Montreal pays about $34 per month for electricity, while the average Maine family pays $84.
If the governor were advocating a move to a system like Quebec’s, in which power is generated at huge publicly owned dams and sold to local consumers at a loss, he might have a point.
But since he is suggesting only that Hydro Quebec would sell us the power at the same price it charges inside the province, he is creating false hope.
Quebec makes money on its power exports and sells electricity at market rates. If the price of natural gas increased, so would the price that Hydro Quebec charges for its electricity.
But Maine can learn from the province. Like Quebec, Maine has an opportunity to be a power exporter. States throughout the Northeast are mandated to use more renewable energy to meet greenhouse gas standards.
Maine has the lowest electricity rates in New England, and there is plenty of demand for renewable power generated here.
LePage has made no secret about this distaste for the wind industry and has used his office to undermine wind development in Maine. But renewable power, both hydro and wind-driven, is Maine’s future and the governor should embrace it.
It’s not the easy either-or proposal the governor described in his address, but an all-of-the-above approach that’s called for.