Warmer Water After Political Tide Change

Now that the pushback to our goals no longer comes from a governor and the governor’s legislative allies, our challenge may be to avoid getting pulled and lost in the sheer force of the “Blue Wave.”
By Bill Bell | March 07, 2019

“Let’s go surfin’ now, everybody’s learning how, come on and safari with me.”  (The Beach Boys, 1962.)  

Perhaps because the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than any other part of the Atlantic, November’s electoral “Blue Wave” surged higher in our state than anywhere else in the country.

Democrat Janet Mills became Maine’s first female governor, following eight years of a controversial Republican executive. Our state Senate, previously controlled by a narrow Republican majority, is now 21-14 Democratic. Democrats substantially increased their majority in the Maine House. In northern Maine, a young Marine veteran defeated the Republican Congressman, the first time in over 100 years that the incumbent has failed to win this district, the second most rural in the U.S. Our new representative has constantly stressed his solidarity with “Maine’s farmers, fishermen and loggers.” 

Equally significant, the first policy issue cited by Mills in her inaugural address was the need to address climate change, a subject of ridicule for her predecessor, who routinely vetoed bills promoting alternative energy. Also of note, the University of Maine campus in the governor’s home town is heated with wood chips, generating $7 in economic activity for every dollar spent on fuel, according to the university. And the schools are all heated by pellet boilers. What to do with all this political currency?

Maine’s State Wood Energy Team, working with Maine Forest Service and funded with a U.S. Forest Service grant, included a state senator and a state House member in our Wood Heating Symposium held in northern Maine this fall. Both legislators were impressed by the attendance, expertise and energy at this conference. The state senator is now Senate president, and is sponsoring two bills to provide funding for modern wood heating in schools, commercial buildings and residences. The House member is now assistant minority leader, and sponsoring a bill to push all schools using state construction funds to give full consideration to biomass heating. 

Even more enticing, big picture, is the fact that a coalition of alternative energy interests and environmental groups have come together on a far-reaching proposal to greatly expand Maine’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS). The RPS currently requires that 10 percent of Maine’s electricity be renewably generated. The proposed new goal: 50 percent renewable by 2030. Even more important to us is that up to five percent of the program would provide cashable renewable energy credits to be issued to thermal energy users.

This granting of thermal energy credits, or “T-RECs,” has been a goal of the biomass industry for years, and is now well-established in New Hampshire, and more recently, in Massachusetts. It’s complicated, beginning with the question of how to measure thermal generation. To install a measuring device on a residential pellet boiler costs almost as much as the financial benefit to be gained by selling the T-RECS to an aggregator. Massachusetts has a simpler system, based on the assumption that heating pellets purchased by a homeowner are actually used for heating, rather than kitty litter or winter driveway traction. It is our intent in Maine to leave complicated details to the Public Utilities Commission.

Mills—whose campaign symbol was a pine tree—has made it clear that we are welcome participants in energy discussions, and has specifically invited input from Maine Energy Systems entrepreneur Les Otten. Following through, our association has joined with Otten to bring on board a prominent lawyer/lobbyist (who finished second to Mills in the gubernatorial primary) to work with legislators. Our goal is to establish funds and incentives for installation of pellet heating in Maine homes, schools and commercial buildings.

Now that the pushback to our goals no longer comes from a governor and the governor’s legislative allies, our challenge may be to avoid getting pulled and lost in the sheer force of the “Blue Wave.” There is a major legislative proposal, being replicated in 10 other states including all of New England, to create what amounts to a Maine carbon tax, with proceeds to be distributed as rebates to utility customers. Another bill proposes to replace the two major private electric utilities with a “community-based utility.” Our legislature’s energy committee, which is mostly comprised of new members, will be dealing with more than 100 bills, twice than normal. One committee veteran, himself a staunch advocate for renewables, calls the new scene “ecstatic chaos.”

In this environment, we may be fighting to gain the bandwidth necessary for our proposals to move forward. But in this very cold winter, the water’s much warmer than before.

Author: Bill Bell
Executive Director, Maine Pellet Fuels Association
[email protected]