PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Aroostook County is paying more than it should for power, but increasing the number of solar and wind projects alone won’t help.
Panelists agreed renewable energy is Maine’s future during a summit hosted by the Aroostook Energy Association Tuesday in Presque Isle. The problem is the infrastructure isn’t complete enough for Aroostook to see lower prices from renewable energy.
Alternative energy sources need to connect to a grid in northern Maine that isn’t technologically advanced enough to handle them, experts said. Technology costs money and there’s no indication progress will be made soon, leaving residents paying higher prices for electricity.
Maine had the highest rate of electricity increase in the country, said moderator Paul Towle, executive director of the Aroostook Partnership. That makes it difficult not only for residents and businesses already here, but puts off those who are thinking of coming to The County.
“I think everybody knows we’re not in a good place right now. Prices are going the wrong way,” Sen. Trey Stewart said. “I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
Stewart joined Maine Public Advocate Bill Harwood and Versant Power regulatory manager David Norman for the panel discussion, which touched on pros and cons of renewable energy, complexities of the electric grid and finding ways to lower energy costs.
Maine is increasingly going solar. From 2018 to 2021, Central Maine Power’s list of solar producers grew from six to more than 600, according to the Maine Monitor. Versant Power in June was studying 60 solar projects in its service areas of Aroostook and parts of northern Penobscot and Washington counties.
The 2019 expansion of Maine’s net energy billing law fueled much of the boom. Net energy billing allows consumers to get credits on their utility bills by using output from small renewable energy generators, such as solar power — either their own or a shared community project, according to the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
But that burgeoning renewable market comes with a price. The subsidies that came with net energy billing could bring losses of $160 million a year or more for Maine power companies like Versant and Central Maine Power.
“If you get people dropping off the grid, somebody has to take up the slack,” Stewart said.
Despite The County’s high electricity prices, Maine’s rates are competitive, Harwood said. Though New England has some of the highest energy costs in the country, Maine is doing a better job than other New England states.
Maine and Rhode Island had New England’s second lowest electricity rates in June, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Neither the solar providers nor the power companies should be painted as villains, Harwood said. They did what the laws told them to do. Now, those policies must be reined in to protect ratepayers, and abolishing net energy billing would be a start.
“No one in the state wants to see a single family in Maine facing the dilemma of whether to pay their utility bills or buy food and medicine,” he said.
Maine also needs to stop using natural gas as a basis for its utility rates, Harwood said. Natural gas is the most widely used power generator in the rest of the country, but not in Maine.
What little natural gas Maine uses comes in a pipeline from Pennsylvania, or on liquid natural gas tankers from New Brunswick and Massachusetts. Those transportation difficulties, as well as the war in Ukraine, create exorbitant prices for natural gas in Maine.
Today’s energy grid is exceedingly complex, especially as technology advances to both create power and control it, said Versant’s Norman.
“The grid today is like a Model T. The grid 20 or 30 years from now is going to be a Tesla,” he said.
The most important thing going forward is to enable people who have plenty of power to send it to those who don’t. This means there must be a backup energy source for when there’s no wind or sun to generate power.
The company has started an integrated system plan in northern Maine, and over the next year and a half will study wind and sun trends, the area’s power needs and ways to fill gaps in power when solar and wind are offline.
Technologically, battery storage is an absolute necessity to control voltage and maintain power to the grid at all times, Norman said.
“We are in a transitional period for energy like we’ve never seen before, and are moving forward to understand what that’s going to look like in the future,” Norman said.
The northern Maine transmission project, a bill sponsored by Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Allagash) and signed into law by Gov. Mills last June, will lower electricity costs but also bring jobs to The County, panelists said. The project will connect Maine through new transmission lines to ISO New England, the northeastern power grid.
Northern Maine will then be able to export power to the northeastern grid, rather than the more costly practice of wheeling it back to New Brunswick, Harwood said.