The Working Waterfront

Maine’s climate goals spur changes to grid

Utilities must now plan for new energy sources

By Stephen Rappaport
Posted 2022-12-07
Last Modified 2022-12-07

Until recently, walking into a dark room and switching on a lamp rarely prompted thoughts about where the electricity energizing the light fixture came from or how it got to where it was needed. That’s changing.

Faced with threats that come with climate change, driven by greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels burned to produce electricity, Maine is converting to cleaner, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. Part of that effort means restructuring the state’s electric power grid to accommodate those new sources.

The move from fossil fuels to renewables will certainly have an enormous impact on Maine’s electric utility companies.

In 2019, the legislature enacted three laws aimed at moving Maine onto a direct path to cleaner, greener energy. The legislation called for Maine to:

• cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050

• increase the state’s “Renewable Portfolio Standard”— which requires increased production of energy from renewable energy sources such as solar and wind—from the present 40 percent to 80 percent by 2030 and sets a goal of 100 renewable energy by 2050

• established new incentives for the installation of energy-efficient heating systems and created new incentives for solar power programs.

Earlier this year, the legislature passed another comprehensive bill, LD 1959, dealing with the regulation of the state’s electric utilities.

Among its complex provisions, LD 1959 requires both Central Maine Power and Versant Power to begin an “integrated grid planning” process aimed at maximizing the reliability and functionality of their distribution systems at the lowest possible cost to customers as those investor-owned utilities deal with the mandated switch away from fossil fuels to clean energy over the next 28 years.

The move from fossil fuels to renewables will certainly have an enormous impact on Maine’s electric utility companies. They will have to reconfigure their distribution systems to receive power from new and less centralized generating facilities— called “distributed energy resources,” or DERs—including individual rooftop solar installations and multi-acre commercial solar farms, as well as land-based and eventually, offshore wind farms.

And the state’s “Maine Won’t Wait” climate action plan calls for an exponential increase in the demand for electricity to power the anticipated growth in the number of heat pumps installed in homes and businesses to replace gas- or oil-fueled furnaces, as well as the ever-growing number of electric vehicles in Maine.

Until now, CMP and Versant have been able to plan expansion and investment strategies to realize purely corporate interests without any meaningful input from customers and without taking Maine’s commitment to clean, renewable energy into account. The only significant control on those activities comes through the rate-setting authority of the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

The new integrated grid planning process requires the utilities to consider the state’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions as they plan revisions to the electrical grid and to ensure that those revisions are consistent with Maine’s clean energy goals. Ideally, the process, which calls for substantial input from the public—technical and environment experts as well as customers—will make the utilities more accountable and save customers money through better use of the companies’ resources.

The Natural Resource Council of Maine praises the laws requiring grid planning because it, for the first time, “holds utilities accountable for their responsibility to help Maine transition to a clean, affordable, and reliable electric grid quickly and cost effectively.”

Specifically, LD 1959 requires the utilities to develop plans every five years that incorporate a range of options for investments in expansion and reconfiguration of the grid. The process will, in theory, be transparent and, ultimately, will form the basis for the PUC’s work in rate cases and other regulatory matters.

Exactly how that process will work or how and to what extent the public will be able to participate are yet to be determined, but the PUC is charged with developing new rules and procedures.

Speaking at a recent seminar explaining some of the coming changes to Maine’s energy system, Jack Shapiro, NRCM’s climate and clean energy director, said the transition “requires a once in a century reimagining of the electric grid.”

The hope, and the governor’s and legislature’s expectation, is that the new integrated grid planning process will provide the framework for that reimagining.

Novel thought: time will tell.