Versant Power truck. Credit: Nina Mahaleris/BDN

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.

New England could see rolling power outages for the 1st time this winter.”  

That was a BDN headline just over a week ago. It’s chilling. Literally.

Back in February, a massive winter storm hit Texas. It crushed their electricity generators, leading to blackouts. Hundreds of people died.  

Now, it isn’t going to be a freak storm that causes blackouts here in Maine. After all, we’re pretty used to tough winters and can take it.  

Instead, shortages in natural gas supply means our regional power plants may not be able to obtain enough fuel to keep turbines spinning and the electricity flowing. In other words, the electricity supply may be a bit short.

Couple that with increases in “electrification” demand on our grid. The popularity of heat pumps has grown immensely. Plug-in vehicles – Teslas, Ford’s “Mach-E,” and others – require electricity to get from A to B.

Our electricity generation remains heavily dependent on natural gas and nuclear power. They account for around 75 percent of the power in New England’s grid. Solar and wind together equal nearly 6 percent, while hydroelectric is about 7 percent.

Our annual “peak hour” – the highest hour of electricity demand in the course of a calendar year – generally occurs in the afternoon of a day in July or August. It is probably a hot day, with the sun beating down, requiring a lot of people to use air conditioning.

That environment is generally favorable for solar; if the sun is shining and making things too hot, solar power is likely being generated.

However, the “peak hour” in winter months are generally in the evening. The “peak” so far this month occurred on Dec. 8 between 5 and 6 p.m  As we all know too well, Maine’s sun doesn’t shine that late in December. Which means that sources like natural gas or oil need to be used to keep things going.  

This is where the politics of energy policy get incredibly complex. Recent headlines noted that customers of Versant Power would see an 89 percent rate hike in power costs during 2022. Those in CMP’s service area would pay $30 more a month. Both were blamed on massive increases in natural gas prices.

And here’s the thing: None of that had anything to do with CMP or Versant Power.  

Back when now-Sen. Angus King was still governor, he signed a bill “deregulating” our electricity system. Before that bill, Bangor Hydro and CMP owned both the power lines as well as the power plants. After deregulation, they were forced to sell off their generation and transition solely to delivery systems.

CMP sold theirs to Florida Power and Light for $846 million. As we all know, they kept the transmission.

The goal of this policy change was to lower our electricity prices. And, to a degree, it worked. We can claim the lowest average price in all of New England.  

But that is a lot like being the sharpest spoon in the drawer. Our electricity costs are 80 percent higher than Louisiana, 62 percent more than Washington state, and 48 percent above Virginia.  

Our Public Utilities Commission sets “standard offer” rates based on bids from commercial power providers. Those “standard offers” are leading to the eye-popping headlines claiming big increases in price, all dependent on which transmission provider’s service area a customer is in.

Once we are past the holiday season, we will be returning to the legislative session. One of the major battlegrounds will be around ownership of our power lines. CMP continues to fight for the “clean energy corridor” in the courts, while the “Our Power” coalition seeks to replace Versant and CMP with a quasi-government agency. These will be knock-down, drag-out fights.

And, in the meantime, we are supposed to buckle up for rolling blackouts. Here’s hoping Augusta can get past the politics, into the policy, and keep the power on.

Michael Cianchette, Opinion columnist

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.