Janet Mills will have to navigate a minefield of opposition and skepticism to her accelerated clean-energy goal.
Gov. Janet Mills delivers her State of the Budget address on Feb. 14, 2023, at the State House in Augusta. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills has a good chance to push through an aggressive new clean-energy goal, an idea that must navigate hypersensitivity to high costs, skepticism and budding opposition from legislative Republicans.

Among the newsmaking items in the Democratic governor’s budget address this month was a proposal to require all of Maine’s electricity to come from renewables by 2040, accelerating and codifying one of the major climate goals set in 2019, the first year of Mills’ tenure. 

The governor’s office is just beginning to engage lawmakers and stakeholders on the idea, and no details have been released. Mills’ goal is partially a recognition of recent clean-energy developments, high oil prices and federal incentives aimed at quickening electrification. Generational decisions on heat pumps, offshore wind and solar policy will play major roles.

“What’s really important is not percentage of renewables,” said Tony Buxton, an energy lobbyist and Mills ally who represents large power consumers, including manufacturers. “What’s important is replacing fossil fuels, and those are two different things.”

Mills’ early set of climate goals included moving Maine’s electricity supply to 80 percent renewables by 2030. That figure is expected to be at 53 percent by the end of this year, up from 48 percent last year. Maine is also on track to smash a goal of installing 100,000 new heat pumps between 2020 and 2025, with the state sitting at 82,000 as of late last year.

Energy development has had recent fits and starts. The $1 billion Central Maine Power Co. corridor was under development when the governor took office but was rejected by voters in 2021 and sits in legal limbo. But a massive wind transmission line connecting Aroostook County with the regional grid is nearly as big as the corridor and sailing toward approval.

Mark Lawrence wants to see Maine meet its clean-energy goal by procuring more power from offshore wind.
Sen. Mark Lawrence, D-York, reviews papers in the Senate chamber at the State House on April 12, 2022, in Augusta. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Maine’s clean-energy hopes are largely tied to offshore wind. Sen. Mark Lawrence, D-Eliot, the co-chair of the Legislature’s energy committee, is sponsoring a measure this year requiring the state to buy enough of that power over 12 years to power 1 million homes. The state will have a turbine pilot in operation by next year and plans the first floating test array in the country.

“I think in many respects, much of the legislation we’ve acted on over the past couple of years has already already put us on an expedited path to reach those goals,” Lawrence said.

Environmental groups hailed the governor’s clean-energy proposal after her budget speech. But the Legislature’s history on major energy policies has energy experts watching closely in a state that remains the most dependent on heating oil.

Under Mills, Maine passed major incentives for small solar projects under 5 megawatts in 2019, a policy known as “net energy metering.” Maine has more than six times the solar capacity that it had entering 2019. However, contracts are tied to volatile global energy prices, meaning delivery rates threatened to skyrocket by 2025 if all planned projects were to go online.

It led lawmakers to rein the policy in twice, and there could be more changes this year. Legislative Republicans have submitted bills to eliminate the clean-energy policy or roll it back while continuing to advocate for their energy white whale: lifting the 100-megawatt cap on hydroelectric dams considered renewable. None of those is likely to pass.

But they are not the only critics of state solar policy. Public Advocate William Harwood, an energy adviser to Mills before she nominated him to be the ratepayer advocate, has been critical of its effect on lower-income ratepayers who generally do not benefit from it directly.

He said Mills’ clean-energy goal was a good policy that everybody should be working toward. However, he also wants her to not overprescribe how the state gets there, citing net energy billing as an example of something that tied the hands of utility regulators.

“If it gets down to that, then it’s an administrative burden and may force us to make decisions that would otherwise be justified based on other competing policy considerations,” Harwood said.

Lawrence said few new programs will be needed in the governor’s bill. He expected “fine-tuning” of existing ones at agencies such as Efficiency Maine, which manages the state’s incentive programs that are being souped up after Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act.

“Going forward, the [office] looks forward to engaging with agencies, stakeholders, and the Legislature on the most responsible and cost-effective path forward to achieving this target,” Dan Burgess, the director of Mills’ energy office, said in a statement.

Democrats can pass the change alone. They may have to, because Sen. Matt Harrington, R-Sanford, who sits on the energy panel, said he doubts his party will support “boxing us in” on a well-intentioned but perhaps unworkable goal, hoping to hear more hydropower in her plan.

In this Nov. 22, 2022, file photo, a Versant power substation is outside of Presque Isle on Parkhurst Siding Road. It supplies the transmission of electricity to Aroostook County. Credit: Paul Bagnall / The Star-Herald

Maine is doing well on the generation side, Buxton said, citing the Aroostook project and calling offshore wind a “decision of a lifetime” for green energy and jobs. But the current heat pump goals are relatively small given there are more than 600,000 homes in Maine and addressing that is the most important thing that could come alongside a new goal, he said.

“I think the administration is heading in the right direction. So if that’s all they’re talking about, fine,” Buxton said of the goal. “But I think we need to properly fund and push the heat pump thing.”

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...