An Aroostook transmission line and referendum for a quasi-public takeover of Maine's utilities are among this year's energy debates.
Habib Dagher, founding executive director of the Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the University of Maine in Orono, talks about developing offshore floating wind turbines on Dec. 6, 2022. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.

The year started with crucial approvals for a wind transmission line that will connect Aroostook County to the regional grid. It could end with a quasi-public takeover of the state’s major electric utilities that will be decided in the November 2023 election.

Those are only the bookends of a pivotal year for Maine energy policy. One of the major things to watch is the movement of Gov. Janet Mills’ new goal of transitioning to fully renewable electricity by 2040. 

Virtually every facet of the state’s clean-energy portfolio, from heat pump adoption to a potentially large but far-off transition to offshore wind in the Gulf of Maine, is wrapped up in that so-far-vague plan.

The early debate: The Democratic governor’s office is just beginning to flesh out a bill charting a path to her goal. Sen. Mark Lawrence, D-Eliot, the co-chair of the Legislature’s energy committee, expects that it will take more “fine-tuning” of existing initiatives than new ones. 

Mills rolled out the proposal during her budget address earlier this month, but the bill will likely be considered separately, and Democrats can pass it alone in the Legislature. But lobbyists and their clients will also want their say in all of this. 

For example, Mills ally Tony Buxton, who represents the Industrial Energy Consumer Group, a coalition of manufacturers and other large power users, is nudging the state to speed along heat pump adoption. His group is behind a measure from Sen. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, that he said would put the Maine Public Utilities Commission in charge of beneficial electrification, or replacing fossil-fuel infrastructure, such as furnaces and vehicles, with electric alternatives.

Pain points: Buxton has been one of the major critics of net energy billing, the subsidies passed by Mills and the Legislature in 2019 creating a solar energy boom across the state that later gained attention when fixed-price contracts threatened large rate increases. The policy has been scaled back since then, and the Mills administration is behind new changes this year.

Republicans want to abolish the policy altogether, and they are back with other proposals reflecting their energy orthodoxy in the era of former Gov. Paul LePage. Top among them is removing the 100-megawatt cap on hydropower projects deemed renewable under strict state standards, something that has been a nonstarter for Democrats and will continue to be.

Why Republicans matter: They have relatively little power in Augusta right now, but their stances on major energy items are key to predicting the future in this policy area. Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, championed the Aroostook power line, and support from Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart of Presque Isle and other Republican lawmakers kept it on solid political footing.

The opposite can be said for offshore wind. When Mills released her roadmap for that power source last week, a group of Republicans including House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, a lobsterman from Winter Harbor, called offshore wind “a blueprint for destroying Maine’s way of life” in line with lobstermen’s criticisms of Mills during the 2022 campaign. She has vowed to protect the fishery in wind development.

Democrats have control of Augusta now, allowing the governor to do many of the things she wants in this area. But they likely won’t have control forever. Any adjustment of long-term energy goals can be changed down the road. 

That makes bipartisan agreement in these areas important, especially with wider uncertainty about who will be providing the power in Maine going forward.

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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...