The Maine Climate Council: What You Need to Know Webinar

May 27, 2020, 12:00 – 1:30 p.m.

Despite the public health crisis, the Maine Climate Council has continued its important work developing a climate action plan for Maine. The Climate Council’s six working groups have been meeting virtually over the last few months to develop their recommendations to reduce Maine’s greenhouse gas emissions at least 80% by 2050, a target set it Maine law.

Please join Acadia Center and our partners for a Zoom webinar to hear from Maine Climate Council working group members about strategies they are developing to help Maine meet its climate goals and how you can take action. In addition to Working Group updates on forests, power and utilities, transportation, Acadia Center’s Jeff Marks will be presenting on the strategies being considered by the Buildings, Infrastructure, and Housing Working Group. Register to attend here.

Implications for a Downward Trend in Emissions

Numerous news stories have documented how the pandemic and resulting economic crisis have reduced air pollution around the world , bringing emissions down globally by 17%. As Americans have been forced to shelter in place to stop the spread of COVID-19, the air around us has become noticeably cleaner and climate pollution has fallen. While no one would seek to lower emissions in this way, a recent article in the Boston Globe explored the extent of the pandemic-induced pollution reduction while highlighting opportunities to rebuild a cleaner, more equitable economy.

“[E]missions from cars, trucks, and airplanes have declined in metropolitan Boston by about 30 percent, while overall carbon emissions have fallen by an estimated 15 percent,” writes David Abel, the author of the article. That level of pollution reduction is unprecedented but offers a challenge to better envision and implement an economic recovery pathway that delivers a just transition to a sustainable future.

That’s why Acadia Center is pushing harder than ever for policies that will make that transition possible. One of the efforts discussed in the article is the Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI). Through TCI, 11 states from Maine to Virginia are working to develop a regional program to reduce vehicle pollution and spur investment in a cleaner, modern, more equitable transportation future. In the Boston Globe, Acadia Center’s Jordan Stutt described it as “a public health program and an economic stimulus program wrapped in one.” The program would generate billions of dollars each year for investment in transportation infrastructure, helping the local workforce rebound while delivering better transportation options and cleaner air to communities across the region.

Acadia Center has long championed the point – supported by data and research — that well-designed efforts to reduce climate pollution provide many benefits for all citizens: improved public health, greater economic opportunity, safer, more efficient buildings, lower energy bills, and more accessible, less-polluting ways to get around. Those benefits are more important now than ever before, particularly in the communities that have been hit hardest by COVID-19. Those communities must be front of mind and at the head of the table as we look to build a resilient, sustainable economy. Acadia Center is committed to doing the research, providing the data and making the case for the large-scale reforms and investment in a cleaner future that will improve the quality of life, health and economies of this region.

Shifting to An Online Work World

In an unprecedented time of change and uncertainty, the suspension of many functions of government and imposition of social distancing has resulted in a surprising amount of creative and effective interactions among stakeholders, government agencies, and coalitions. Moving to online, virtual meetings has presented opportunities to interact with new audiences and deepen relationships with stakeholders.

Acadia Center’s experience with online collaboration across its offices has prepared the organization well for this transition to virtual public hearings and stakeholder processes. The crisis has reinforced our commitment to advance effective, equitable reform solutions across the region and has prompted our staff to generate new ideas for innovative virtual engagement opportunities where physical barriers may have previously been limiting.

In Connecticut, just as the historic health and safety directives were put in place in March to cancel all in person events, Acadia Center and allies shifted a long-planned forum on the Transportation Climate Initiative (TCI) to an online webinar format. The result was excellent: the forum was attended by over 80 diverse participants, including business, community leaders, legislators, and administration officials. The event focused on how the TCI program structure could work, how to extend its benefits to all people in the state, and emphasized economic and employment benefits, exceeding its goal to move the discussion forward on implementing a sound transportation and climate policy for the state.

Official government work also shifted to online formats. In Rhode Island, Acadia Center RI Director Hank Webster participated in an “Energy 101” panel for members of the recessed General Assembly and spoke to Leadership Rhode Island’s first ever virtual “Government Day” about the legislative process and climate/energy issues. Hank also commented during the first-ever video conference meeting of the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Committee. An important state stakeholder process designed make recommendations to Governor Raimondo on ways to transform building heating in the state to cleaner resources also moved online, allowing stakeholders including Acadia Center the opportunity to provide verbal and written comments ahead of a final report. And in Maine, the Governor’s Climate Council process – an ambitious effort to engage numerous stakeholders to recommend an effective climate plan for the state –shifted rapidly online as the state phased in social distancing requirements, allowing the tight schedule for the process to remain in place. Acadia Center responded by working remotely with coalition partners on policy development, outreach, and communications strategies related to buildings, energy, forestry, and transportation.

In Massachusetts, Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Katie Theoharides hosted an online briefing and coalition communications have continued without significant interruption. Acadia Center steered advocacy within coalitions such as the Alliance for Clean Energy Solutions (ACES), the Global Warming Solutions Project (GWSP), and the Massachusetts Offshore Wind Power Coalition. Acadia Center continued to lead input in shaping the Baker Administration’s approaches to offshore wind and state carbon targets. Acadia Center and a broad coalition have been focused on ways to strengthen the Global Warming Solutions Act, leading to passage of a strong Senate bill and a commitment from the Baker Administration in January of 2020 to a net-zero carbon target in 2050. Acadia Center will closely track and comment on the forecasts and roadmap development that continues to progress as stakeholder engagement uses remote formats.

The New England Power Pool (NEPOOL), the governance body engaged in overseeing the region’s electricity grid, maintained its regular schedule using virtual tools. As a member of NEPOOL, Acadia Center is engaged in the upcoming Transition to the Future Grid analysis being undertaken to address the barriers faced by clean energy resources in the current electricity grid design. Acadia Center’s Deborah Donovan coordinated with other clean energy advocates to ensure NEPOOL’s rejection of a flawed proposal to modify energy markets in ways that would harm consumers and further bias clean energy.

Acadia Center also raised its voice to address directly ways the crisis was affecting key programs. For example, all residential energy efficiency and weatherization work was ordered to be stopped early in March in Connecticut, causing a wide range of impacts including on the vendor community performing the efficiency installations. No resources were being offered to assist the contractors or workers but as chair of the Connecticut Energy Efficiency Board (CEEB), Acadia Center Connecticut Director Amy McLean was able to raise questions about ways to relieve the burden of the contractors and keep them from going under during the pandemic. As a result of action at the CEEB, the state issued a formal ruling on April 24, 2020 outlining compensation eligibility for energy efficiency vendors.

The Public Utilities Commission and Why it Must be Reformed

Home Electric meter in plastic case showing watthours usedState Public Utility Commissions (PUCs) regulate the rates and services of public utilities that provide electricity, gas, sewage, or water. These governing bodies formed to provide oversight to utilities to whom they have granted monopoly markets. Generally, the mission of PUCs is to approximate the prices of a competitive market, which requires balancing the needs of consumers and the utility. Traditionally, PUCs are charged to keep rates low, ensure reliable supply, and allow utilities the opportunity to earn a profit on their business.

To make swift progress on climate goals, we must change the way PUCs respond to clean energy and climate efforts.

With a vast array of effective clean energy technologies existing today, regulatory changes can revolutionize how energy is delivered and consumed in the time of this climate crisis. Currently, PUCs operate in ways that fail to treat clean energy resources on a level playing field, often furthering the region’s dependence on fossil fuels. These regulatory bodies have the potential to advance a low-carbon future, but outdated mandates keep them from doing so.

For example, National Grid, Rhode Island’s only electric and gas utility, filed a stakeholder-supported plan in 2019 with the state’s PUC. The plan recommended using the state energy efficiency program to install heat pumps in oil and propane heated homes. The PUC denied that provision, ruling that the benefits to electric customers —including lower rates and climate and health benefits —did not outweigh the costs. The PUC reached this conclusion in part because it could not consider the benefits to oil and propane customers – including lower bills and improved indoor air quality. In general, PUCs throughout the Northeast are required to focus on rate impacts, rather than addressing a more complete assessment of ratepayer benefits, including meeting state climate goals and utilizing clean technologies to improve indoor air quality or provide other consumer benefits that overall lower bills. As a result, the additional consumer, health, economic and equity benefits that can be achieved through climate action are often overlooked in cost comparisons.

Acadia Center advocates for regulatory changes that benefit the climate and consumer.

Too often, clean alternatives —including clean heating— are harmed by the PUC mandates, slowing down the transition to a clean energy economy. As evident in the Rhode Island example, a view that considers only the short-term rate impacts misses the potential future costs of energy investments that lean heavily on fossil fuels. These costs will accrue to utilities and ratepayers in the form of more-expensive grid hardening expenses and storm recovery from increasingly common extreme weather, and to all of us in the form of costs of disaster response and recovery. PUC enabling statutes throughout the Northeast do not appropriately account for these continued impacts and are misaligned with the states’ push for dramatic emission reductions. These statutes are overdue for reform. If we were to update the enabling statutes to clarify the PUCs’ responsibility to regulate in alignment with state policy goals, we could require consideration of the full costs of energy investments in all decisions and mandate minimizing climate impacts. This would allow utility regulators to make decisions that support greenhouse gas reduction and consider climate change impacts, and that appropriately value societal health impacts, job creation, improved reliability, and other quantifiable costs and benefits. This screen could minimize long-term costs to ratepayers from climate and other impacts that now fall outside the scope of the PUCs’ prime responsibility in just keeping the cost of energy low. Implementation of this change would require updating cost-benefit tests to utilize a consistent set of total costs and benefits, including those borne or received by society, the environment, or consumers as described above. This can ensure that PUC decisions continue to benefit today’s customers, but not at the expense of future customers.

by Amy Boyd