October 14, 2012

Michael Cuzzi: A great legacy awaits LePage in renewable energy sources

It's too bad, then, that the governor has shown considerable antipathy to tapping them.

America's energy marketplace has been transformed by the discovery of abundant natural gas supplies that are driving energy costs down, altering our generation portfolio, and even sidelining traditional energy sources like oil and coal.

But as natural gas' domination of our generation capacity expands and environmental regulations around hydraulic fracturing tighten, a market correction that raises natural gas prices and increases the competitiveness of renewables is inevitable.

That's why it's so critical that Maine provide ongoing support to encourage the growth of its renewable energy marketplace. By thinking long term and pursuing the bipartisan policies already in place, the state can build on existing successes and transform itself into a regional energy hub that stands ready to reap the economic rewards as old fossil fuel generation is retired, demand increases and prices rise.

This could be the energy legacy of Paul LePage.

Yet Gov. LePage has demonstrated considerable antipathy toward renewable energy production in Maine. The governor's primary criticism is that renewable sources are more expensive than traditional fossil fuels, and therefore we should reject them and pursue "more cost-effective non-foreign oil sources."

The governor has a point about short-term energy costs and their impact on job creation, but it's a point that demands greater contextualization in order to pursue a smart, long-term and balanced energy policy.

Maine can and should increase natural gas use at homes and businesses and pursue new natural gas co-generation facilities to keep short-term costs down. But it would be economic folly to let our renewable resources go untapped and uncapitalized. We have an abundance of land-based and offshore wind, forest biomass, small-scale hydro and tidal energy. Maine's energy marketplace is largely a renewable one.

In addition to the resources themselves, Maine has a rich academic research environment, advanced composites expertise, significant supply chain development opportunities and close proximity to major East Coast energy markets. All of these position Maine for exponential growth in the renewable sector if we make informed policy decisions and send clear signals to the development community.

That's why the governor's opposition to renewable generation generally and the state's Renewable Portfolio Standard in particular are well intentioned but shortsighted. In an effort to save the average Maine rate payer between $4-$20 a year on their electricity bill, the governor would spurn an industry that's poised to invest $1.1 billion in Maine and create almost 12,000 local jobs in the next several years.

Those figures come from a London Economics International study commissioned by Maine's Public Utilities Commission at the direction of the Legislature. The study found that Maine's economy, environment and energy security all stand to benefit from efforts to diversify our energy mix and move away from traditional fossil fuel-based sources.

It's a wonder that Maine's business friendly governor is looking askance at the renewable-energy sector even as Maine's economy continues to struggle and 50,000 Mainers remain out of work. The renewables industry pumped over $2 billion in investment capital into Maine over the last 12 years and created thousands of direct and secondary jobs. No other industry can approach these figures.

What's more, Maine's renewable generation costs are -- by and large -- not borne directly by Maine energy consumers. The energy is sold into New England's regional grid and is often purchased by organizations and businesses to our south hungry for renewable sources and willing to pay a premium for them. In other words, renewable energy is one of Maine's best value-added export products.

If the governor were consistent about his opposition to renewable energy costs, he would actively oppose Statoil's proposed offshore wind-energy project, Hywind Maine. That demonstration project represents over $200 million in additional costs to Maine energy consumers over 20 years. That's over 40 percent of Maine's outstanding general obligation debt. To quote Gov. LePage, "Where's the outrage?"

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