Getting the grid we need

Clean, affordable, and climate-resilient power depends on a commitment to “energy democracy”

October 10, 2023 3:16 pm

Central Maine Power workers repair lines after a storm. (Evan Houk/Maine Morning Star)

Let’s start with a premise most of us likely share: In the coming years, all Maine residents should have reliable access to affordable and dependable electricity from clean sources transported through a resilient and adaptable grid.

Realizing that vision requires us to forfeit fossil fuels, which are pressure-cooking the Earth and siphoning off more than $4 billion from Maine’s households and businesses every year. As we convert heating and transportation technologies, we’ll be more dependent than ever on the electricity grid—which needs a massive overhaul. 

We’ve managed large-scale utility transitions before, observes Ken Colburn, a former environmental regulator who serves on the Efficiency Maine Trust board and co-chairs the Maine Climate Council’s Energy Working Group. The U.S. moved from reliance on a telephone monopoly, “Ma Bell,” to cell phones in every hand. Now we need a grid that will be similarly dynamic and individualized, he adds: “Electricity represents the next great decentralization.” 

Building the beehive

The grid dynamic that has dominated for a century is fast becoming obsolete. It’s no longer simply a matter of “adjusting [electricity] supply to meet demand,” Colburn says; “Sun and wind will run when they want to run. Now, it’s a matter of managing demand to meet what the available electricity supply is.” 

This inversion requires sophisticated data systems, “smart” electric devices, better real-time information on electricity flows, and incentives to shift demand away from peak-use times. To significantly boost transmission capacity along existing lines, for example, Maine utilities could be doing a lot more with proven grid enhancing technologies,” readily adoptable tools (such as sensors) and software long used in Europe. 


Utilities here could also be helping renters and low-income homeowners realize significant electricity savings by offering “inclusive utility investments” that finance needed weatherization and energy-efficiency improvements. Customers pay back the utility’s investments over time on their electric bill, with monthly energy savings more than covering the repayment. Unlike low-interest loan programs, there’s no credit check needed to qualify because repayment is linked to the residence’s electric meter, not the individual.

There’s a wealth of creative ways to deliver on the vision for affordable, low-carbon and climate-resilient electricity; they’re just not happening yet in most of Maine. 

Supporters of the Our Power campaign protested outside a Chamber of Commerce event on Sept. 14 that only featured opponents of the Pine Tree Power initiative.
Supporters of the Our Power campaign protested outside a Chamber of Commerce event on Sept. 14 that only featured opponents of the Pine Tree Power initiative. (courtesy of Our Power)

Utilities that act and those that ‘consider’

Grid innovations are already happening in settings like Vermont. Green Mountain Power provides free “Level 2” electrical vehicle (EV) chargers to homeowners, offers incentives for home battery storage to households willing to share stored energy with the utility, and has begun installing “microgrids” in areas vulnerable to extended power outages. These auxiliary power sources (often battery banks replenished by solar panels) can also feed the grid during peak-demand times (such as heat waves). 

In its 2020 climate plan, Green Mountain Power stated that a critical part of its mission is “preparing for, operating through, and recovering from significant, possibly prolonged events… given the increased frequency and ferocity” of climate-driven storms. Maine’s dominant utilities, Central Maine Power and Versant Power, have yet to complete climate plans. Forced into action by the Legislature (Section 7. 35-A), they must now file plans with the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) by year-end. 

Jon Breed, CMP’s director of corporate communications, wrote in an email that “The first Climate Change Protection Plan, which will be published by the end of the year, will detail CMP’s plan to create a climate change vulnerability study to identify and quantify risk due to climate change, and an accompanying climate change resilience plan to identify adaptation strategies to mitigate climate change risks.” Translation: The mandated “plan” will describe two other as-yet-to-be-completed plans. (CMP would only provide written responses to questions, not the interview requested.)

Don’t expect to find a roadmap for a networked system of microgrids or incentives for residential solar power and battery storage in either CMP’s or Versant’s “climate plans.” When asked two years ago about work to advance microgrids, CMP indicated that it was “considering” their use. A second inquiry last month elicited a nearly identical answer. The more the world changes, the more entrenched utilities stay the same.

Both CMP and Versant favor storm preparedness through “hardening” infrastructure, like installing stronger poles, reconfiguring substations or adding new transmission lines because those are all capital investments that earn a guaranteed rate of return. In terms of planning for climate resilience, “their focus will be harden, harden, harden,” Colburn predicts, “which is to say capital, capital, capital.” 


A can’t do attitude

A more innovative and cost-effective approach to grid functioning and resilience would require grid operators to be nimble and transparent, readily sharing data with regulators and customers. In Maine and many other settings, from California to Puerto Rico, people increasingly seek an “energy democracy” where those who generate and use power have a greater say in how the system is designed and operated

CMP and Versant don’t share that vision, and both have rock-bottom national rankings for customer satisfaction. The PUC also discourages ratepayer involvement through an arcane process, minimal public outreach and a cumbersome website. “There’s a lot the PUC could do to make sure it’s really public,” observes Johannah Blackman, who directs the nonprofit A Climate to Thrive (ACTT), which helps Mount Desert Island residents move toward energy independence and which advocates for clean power statewide.

In the eight years since ACTT formed, Blackman says, “far, far, far and away the biggest roadblock has been the utilities.” They have consistently thwarted both local and state plans for more affordable, clean and resilient power. “The utility [Versant] in terms of information is essentially a black box,” Blackman adds. “While we’ve seen them put in time to have relationships, it’s been a lot of meetings to justify why nothing can get better.”

Decentralized power sources like solar and wind complicate grid administration, David Norman, Versant’s regulatory manager, explains. Versant engineers “work to implement rapidly improving technologies to overcome technical challenges,” adds Judy Long, the utility’s manager of communications and brand. 

But customers trying to bring solar power onto the grid see things differently.

Will Mainers vote their two biggest utilities out?

Maine Sen. Nicole Grohoski (D-Ellsworth) noted in a recent podcast with journalist David Roberts that the average cost for Versant customers seeking to connect rooftop solar installations to the grid is $10,000. She also said that the time predicted for one constituent’s interconnection changed from two years to two months after that customer filed a formal complaint against Versant at the PUC. 

A better path

Energy democracy, like political democracy, is hard to build and maintain, but Maine’s Question 3 ballot measure, which seeks greater ratepayer control, gets at the essential challenge, reflects John Farrell, a co-director of the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “Maine is closer to the truth of why we have this problem,” he adds, which stems from a systemic failure to “align the incentives and the decision making.” Investor-owned utilities are beholden to their shareholders so many promising strategies are resisted or ignored. With a consumer-owned utility, he adds, “people making the decisions are the ones affected.” 

Farrell has watched for years as utilities nationwide spend huge sums defending their interest in making money off consumers while providing abysmal service. “To me it looks like a bullying, abusive relationship,” Farrell says, in which “the bully has all the incentives to keep bullying.” 

Maine’s two dominant utilities operate with little concern for ratepayers because we—as a state—have granted them that monopoly. 

If CMP and Versant are allowed to maintain the status quo, Blackman fears, “that’s going to cost Maine ratepayers tremendously.” Maine could lose out on significant federal funds under the Inflation Reduction Act, and utilities will pour money into large-scale construction and reconstruction—rather than focusing strategically on the most economical, efficient and innovative ways to reduce and manage electricity demand in a more dynamic grid. 

“If we don’t restructure the way the system operates, we’re going to push a boulder uphill the whole way,” Farrell says. “There’s nothing we can do that’s more substantive than changing the relationship between the utility and the customer.”

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