PORTLAND, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s re-election Tuesday gives him a huge opportunity to influence Maine’s energy policy as the region’s electricity generation challenges will take center stage during the next four years.
Energy policy is an area of high concern for the governor, and one in which his ambitions outstripped his accomplishments during his first term, but not for a lack of trying.
He was unsuccessful changing policies that could pave the way for Maine to draw more hydropower from Quebec, and a New England regional plan to expand natural gas pipeline capacity stalled after outgoing Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, backed away from the talks in the fall.
The political winds that changed in Maine and Massachusetts could reinvigorate that effort and make it easier for LePage to achieve his energy policy goals during a second term.
LePage could alley-oop Maine Public Utilities Commission appointments to the Senate. Not only will LePage have the rare chance to appoint a majority of the state’s utility regulators next year, but he could also have more sway with lawmakers as Republicans took charge of the Senate and will shake up the Legislature’s energy committee, whose past Senate chairman, Democrat John Cleveland, lost his re-election bid.
That committee reviews PUC appointees and to overturn a majority vote there requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate, which is now in the hands of Republicans. The committee, however, will likely remain Democratic, as they control the House.
The early retirement of PUC Chairman Tom Welch leaves the governor with the unusual opportunity to appoint two of the commission’s three members in the same year. The six-year terms are staggered, so one commissioner is up for reappointment every two years.
LePage appointee Mark Vannoy will be joined by LePage nominees to replace Welch and outgoing commissioner David Littell, a holdover from Democrat John Baldacci’s tenure whose positions on wind power and other energy regulatory matters differ greatly from LePage’s.
Regional energy talks could restart. The election has regional implications, too, as Massachusetts voters elected Republican Charlie Baker to the state’s top office.
Baker hasn’t said publicly what he’d make of a regional energy effort (and his spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment Thursday), but he told the Boston Globe in October he supports expanding existing natural gas pipelines, rather than building new ones, like a proposal that generated opposition from property owners earlier this year.
This all comes as Maine’s state regulators are considering whether electricity ratepayers should pony up as much as $75 million a year that could support projects from one, two or three companies with plans to increase the daily volume of natural gas available in the state.
The idea is that new capacity could reduce the cost of natural gas and, because the region depends on the fuel for electricity, reduce the price of power as a result. But Maine regulators aren’t sure a $75 million annual commitment — for up to 20 years — can make a dent in the natural gas price disparity between New England and the rest of the country.
During an Oct. 29 interview at the Blaine House, LePage said he thinks Maine can invest up to $17 million annually in incremental gas capacity expansions via Spectra Energy’s lines, but that Maine should not go it alone in getting access to natural gas from the Marcellus Shale.
“If we were to put a pipeline from here to Marcellus, that would be big bucks — billions — so I don’t think we should go at it alone,” LePage said.
Critics of that process have said it will interfere with the deregulated and competitive market for electricity generation in New England.
LePage said in October he thinks deregulation of the region’s power markets — separating power companies and electricity generators — was a mistake, but it’s unlikely there will be any changes there.
Ready for heat pumps. The governor installed heat pumps in the Blaine House and he hopes to install others in homes around the state. It’s one area he touts progress during his administration, with about 12,000 installed in homes by the end of this year.
That’s part of a decline in heating oil use from about 74 percent of Maine homes in 2010 to about 63 percent as of the latest tally.
Heat pump technology has improved to serve colder climates, and LePage will likely continue to promote state support of heat pump conversions, which now happens through the Efficiency Maine Trust and funds paid through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
Hydropower survey. The Governor’s Energy Office is getting back a survey of hydropower dams across the state, where LePage thinks new investment and equipment could boost electricity production.
Hydropower is one of the sources LePage said he thinks the state can tap quickly.
The governor also wants to remove a cap on how much hydropower will satisfy the state’s renewable electricity portfolio standard, allowing large purchases of hydropower from Quebec to qualify. Those mandatory purchasing standards create a ready market for renewables that cost more than traditional energy sources.