In small things and in large, when it comes to energy policy Maine is far off course.

First, the small thing. Two years ago, I learned through a newspaper story that Central Maine Power was offering time of use rates for residential customers. Time of use, or TOU, is a program being tried across the country to level out the peaks and valleys in electric usage that are a chief cause of higher electric rates.

At peak periods, when utilities purchase electricity on the spot market, prices can be very high indeed — 50 cents per kilowatt hour, even up to a dollar or more. During nighttime hours, electricity is practically free — there are no peaks, and plenty of idle capacity.

So CMP’s plan would reward customers willing to shift use to evenings and weekends, charging 4 cents off peak, against the usual 7 cents for delivery. On-peak would cost more — 10 cents — but overall bills could be lower. We decided to try it.

The results were better than expected. We cut our electric bills by 15 percent, simply by washing clothes and dishes during off-peak hours, and turning off the water heater during the day.

It wouldn’t work for busy households with kids, but for a lot of Mainers, it would be a boon. Savings like that usually get everyone switching their accounts to a new provider, but this was still CMP.

Last month, two days before the next rate period, I got a notice the TOU program was ending. I didn’t have to do anything, it said. Of course not. It turns out CMP never really wanted the program, ordered by the Public Utilities Commission, to succeed.

TOU already had been running six months when we signed up. There wasn’t even a bill insert describing the program, and the first time I called CMP no one knew anything about it; later, a few people were trained.

The website providing “real time” data about electric use was a joke — slow and uninformative. And the “smart meters” CMP had just rolled out weren’t smart enough; another had to be installed. In all, only 400 customers signed up.

So if anyone at the PUC suggests saving customers money and lowering utility costs again, CMP can say the effort failed; I would argue it was never properly tried.

Now, the large thing. Last month, the PUC decided to “reopen” proceedings on two long-term wind power contracts signed in December. Commissioners allegedly were concerned that the short-term drop in petroleum prices would affect 20-year price forecasts on which the contracts were based.

This is the second time the state has abrogated already signed electric generation contracts. The first time, Gov. Paul LePage chased away Norwegian energy company Statoil, which planned to build a $2 billion offshore wind farm. Now, the PUC has nullified a contract it signed two months earlier.

What changed? LePage’s original appointee to the PUC, Tom Welch, who had voted “wrong,” by the governor’s lights, on Statoil and on-shore wind, was replaced by Carlisle McLean, LePage’s legal counsel. She created the appearance, by voting to reconsider the wind power contracts, that she’s more than willing to do the governor’s bidding. She confirmed it on Tuesday by voting to gut energy efficiency subsidies, in a clear misreading of legislative intent.

LePage previously had written a letter to the PUC in which he escalated his irrational distaste for wind energy, suggesting, once again, the PUC consider Quebec hydropower, a largely fictional alternative, and nuclear power, an utter fantasy.

It’s not as if these were “high price” wind contracts — one was 4.7 cents per kwh for 20 years, the other 5.3 cents for 25 years. If you believe electricity will actually be cheaper in 20 years than today, you’re really leaving the bounds of reality, but that’s what the new PUC majority wants us to believe. With natural gas, there are no long-term contracts because no one knows what its price will be.

Another PUC commissioner from the John Baldacci years, David Littell, will be leaving shortly. This time, the Legislature might want to look a little more carefully at his proposed successor.

LePage has never explained why he believes that electricity produced in Maine by renewable sources at market rates is such a terrible thing. The upcoming confirmation hearing will be an opportunity for legislators to ask about that, and insist on answers. This is not a partisan question for Republicans and Democrats, but one about the future of this state. When will we get our energy policy back on track?

Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 30 years. He can be reached at [email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: