More energy storage is needed to support wind and solar power, MIT study finds

A new report released Monday by researchers at MIT finds that it’s technologically and financially feasible to use energy storage systems, such as massive batteries or hydroelectricity, to almost completely eliminate the need for fossil fuels to operate regional power grids.

Such systems are becoming in greater demand in New England, and beyond, as more renewable energy powers homes and businesses and they require ways to keep the lights on when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.

“Our study finds that energy storage can help [renewable energy]-dominated electricity systems balance electricity supply and demand while maintaining reliability in a cost-effective manner,” said Robert Armstrong, director of the MIT Energy Initiative, which commissioned the three-year study.

The authors of the report estimated that the costs of transforming power grids in the Northeast, Southeast, and Texas will range between 21 percent and 36 percent higher than if nothing was done to promote storage-backed renewable energy. The costs will be higher in the Northeast, where there are greater energy demands in the winter.

But they described those costs as “relatively modest” and noted there would be many hours when the costs of electricity would be near zero. That means future power grids are more likely to enable the low-cost charging of increased numbers of electrical vehicles and homes with electrical heating systems. They will be able to be charged when prices dip.

“These cost increases are relatively modest compared to the costs of not doing anything, and especially compared to the costs of climate change, which is an existential threat,” said Dharik Mallapragada, one of the authors of the report.

As of 2019, New England had 62 megawatts of battery storage capacity, according to a report last year by the US Energy Information Administration. There are numerous projects that have proposed adding some 6,500 megawatts of energy storage to the regional grid, with more than 630 megawatts of new storage capacity slated to become operational by 2025, according to ISO New England, the regional grid operator.

Joe Curtatone, president of the Northeast Clean Energy Council, said the report underscored that storage can be used in many locations. The report noted that many existing fossil fuel plants could be converted into storage facilities.

“That means energy jobs all over our region, and the best part is it’s ready to be deployed now,” he said. “We don’t need to be wasting time or money on archaic projects, like the proposed Peabody peaker plant. We should be building energy storage to cover our peak power needs.”

The Baker administration has authorized the construction of a 55 megawatt fossil fuel plant in Peabody designed to operate on the coldest and hottest days of the year to add power to the grid when needed.

Some who follow the renewable energy industry said there was little new in the report.

“All of their conclusions seem like concepts that are widely agreed upon in the energy wonk realm,” said Kyle Murray, a senior policy advocate at the Acadia Center, an environmental advocacy group in Boston. “We in the energy realm have been stressing for a long time that cost-effective storage is absolutely essential for our renewable energy future.

Read the full article in The Boston Globe here.

Connecticut electric vehicle rebate reforms include point-of-sale vouchers

Connecticut’s electric vehicle rebate program is about to undergo an expansion and overhaul, one that will place a higher priority on equity.

The reforms are part of the omnibus Connecticut Clean Air Act approved by lawmakers in the session that ended last week. Gov. Ned Lamont signed the bill into law Tuesday.

The legislation significantly expands funding for the program, called the Connecticut Hydrogen and Electric Automobile Purchase Rebate, or CHEAPR. It currently receives the first $3 million in greenhouse gas reduction fees paid every year on car registrations. As of July 1, all of those fees will be directed to the rebate program, boosting funding by as much as another $5 million annually.

CHEAPR offers rebates of $750 to $2,250 on the purchase of battery-electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. Higher incentives are available for fuel cell electric vehicles.

Beginning last year, the program began offering an additional rebate of $1,500 to $2,000 to lower-income residents, as determined by their participation in a state or federal income-qualified program. Income-qualified residents are also eligible for rebates on used electric vehicles.

But very few low-income residents have applied, said Barry Kresch, a leader of the EV Club of Connecticut. One barrier is that, unlike the standard rebate, the lower-income incentives are not immediately credited on the invoice at the dealership. Instead, they have to apply for the incentive after the purchase.

“It’s asking a lot to have a lower-income individual float that cash,” Kresch said.

The new legislation is intended to boost uptake among lower-income individuals, partly by expanding eligibility. The program will be required to give the highest priority to residents of environmental justice communities, residents with incomes at or below 300% of the federal poverty level, and residents who participate in state or federal assistance programs, including the Operation Fuel energy assistance program.

It also allows for vouchers, which could better serve low- to moderate-income drivers, said Will Healey, a spokesperson for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, or DEEP.

“Think of a voucher as a coupon,” he said. “A voucher can be applied upfront to reduce the purchase price at the point of sale.”

DEEP will also use some of the additional funding to expand outreach and marketing to lower-income residents, Healey said.

DEEP will now be the governing authority over the program. The current governing board, established in 2020, will instead serve in an advisory capacity.

Amy McLean, Connecticut director for the Acadia Center and a CHEAPR board member, said that while she has some concerns around the board’s loss of control, at the same time, the board was not always very good at moving forward.

“We had a hard time getting quorum, and so then we couldn’t make decisions as a result,” she said. “Before this legislation was put into place, I talked with DEEP and they expressed frustration with that.”

McLean said she views it as a “positive move” overall, given that the legislation also expands the board from six to 10 appointed members representing a wider swath of stakeholders.

Another key change is that municipalities, businesses, nonprofits and tribal entities will now be eligible for rebates. Any one entity may receive up to 10 rebates annually, up to an overall total of 20.

And finally, rebates of at least $500 will be available for the purchase of e-bikes, something environmental advocates have pushed for as a matter of equity. DEEP will establish income qualifications for the rebate, which only applies to bikes that cost $3,000 or less.

“We had a very successful event at the State Capitol in April where there were bikes for legislators to try,” said McLean, an avid e-bike rider herself. “The idea was to dispel the idea that these things are just for fun. They are fun, but they are also transportation.”

Prices on e-bikes have risen in the past couple of years due to higher shipping costs from China and general inflation, said Chris Zane, the owner of Zane’s Cycles in Branford. So a $500 rebate will basically just take the inflation out of the price, as what used to be a $1,600 bike is now closer to $2,300, he said.

“But on the other hand, it doesn’t cost anything to run,” he said. “If you have a car and you’re filling it with gas, and you can use your e-bike for half of those miles, you’re not spending $30 a week on gas. You could easily be in the black within a year or two.”

Over the 12-month period ending April 1, CHEAPR distributed roughly 1,300 rebates totaling about $1.5 million, according to the CHEAPR statistics page. More than half of purchasers bought a Toyota Rav4 Prime or a Toyota Prius Prime, both plug-in hybrids.

Tesla used to hold the number-one slot for rebates, but the automaker raised base prices for the Model 3 and Model Y above the program’s $42,000 cap, making them ineligible, Kresch said.  The new legislation boosts the cap to $50,000.

Read the full article in Energy News Network here.

New England grid operator moves to delay reform of rule favoring fossil fuels

A proposal from New England’s grid operator to delay a key reform that would enable more renewable energy sources to bid into the capacity market is prompting a torrent of protests in a proceeding before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

U.S. Sens. Edward Markey, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders; the Massachusetts attorney general; the Maine Office of the Public Advocate; the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators; numerous environmental and clean energy organizations; and more than 100 private citizens have all submitted comments asking FERC to reject ISO-New England’s proposal.

“At the very moment when New England should be fully embracing the transition to renewables and the related socioeconomic opportunities, this decision to undermine state actions and renewable energy deployment is a terrible and ill-timed mistake,” the senators said in their mutually signed letter.

“It should come as no surprise,” they added, “that three New England natural gas plant operators developed what became the ISO-New England proposal.”

The expressions of outrage follow what critics say was a last-minute flip-flop in ISO-New England’s position on what’s called the minimum offer price rule, commonly referred to as the MOPR (pronounced moper).

The MOPR sets an artificial bidding price floor for each type of state-supported clean energy resource in ISO’s annual forward capacity auctions, which secure adequate generating resources for the region three years in advance. It is intended to prevent state-sponsored bidders from offering low bids that could distort the market because they don’t include costs that have been paid for by the state.

The rule negatively impacts many renewable and clean energy resources, which often have state contracts and other subsidies. The MOPR fixes a bidding price floor that is intended to factor in the entire reconstructed cost of each type of clean energy, including any potential support it could receive from the state. That has prevented renewable suppliers from competing in the auctions with older fossil-fuel generators.

In its proposal to FERC, ISO-New England calls for the elimination of the MOPR beginning with the forward capacity auction in 2025.

On the one hand, ISO notes, the MOPR protects investors in other generation resources from being undercut by artificially low bids from subsidized resources. But on the other, it can harm consumers. That’s because state-subsidized renewable projects like solar and offshore wind will be built regardless, meaning consumers will end up paying for additional capacity beyond what ISO selects through the auctions.

“And while there is no evidence that this potential inefficiency has harmed consumers to date,” ISO says in its proposal, “that result is clearly looming.”

So why not eliminate the MOPR immediately, rather than three years from now, ask ISO’s critics. In fact, plans were well underway to eliminate it as of the next forward capacity auction, in March 2023, until ISO suddenly scrapped that idea in favor of a slower alternative put forward by Vistra Energy, Calpine Energy Services and Nautilus Power as part of an eight-month stakeholder discussion.

“It caught everybody by surprise,” said Melissa Birchard, the director of clean energy and grid reform at the Acadia Center, a regional environmental organization that participated in the discussions. “Changing their position at the very last minute gave no one the opportunity to really look into what that meant.”

In its proposal, ISO cited reliability concerns as the primary reason for delaying an end to the MOPR. Immediate elimination could cause other capacity resources to withdraw from the market, as capacity market prices decline, which could create reliability problems if the renewable resources aren’t commercially available, the proposal said.

But Bruce Ho, New England lead for the Sustainable FERC Project, housed at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said ISO has offered little to substantiate that argument.

“We haven’t seen any real analysis from the grid operator that shows that there’s a problem,” he said. “We also need to understand the tradeoffs. Keeping the MOPR in place is going to be very expensive for customers, bad for the environment, and will keep a dirtier grid in place than the New England states are calling for.”

The Massachusetts attorney general and the Maine consumer advocate have another theory: “ISO-New England’s sudden adoption of the transition mechanism must be viewed for what it is: an attempt to disincent legal challenges to MOPR reform by fossil fuel generators.”

Instead of prioritizing reducing consumer cost and system overbuild, the authorities said in their joint comments, ISO has signaled that “protecting capacity market revenues for incumbent generators is paramount.”

The proposal does include an exemption for a total of 700 megawatts of state-sponsored renewable capacity in the next two auctions. But that’s “not at all sufficient, especially given the amount of offshore wind coming online,” said Susannah Hatch, the regional lead for the New England for Offshore Wind coalition.

Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have set targets for more than 8,000 megawatts of offshore wind by 2030. More than 4,700 megawatts are already under contract, she said.

FERC must make its decision in accordance with the Federal Power Act, which authorizes the commission to reject a tariff proposal only if it determines it isn’t “just and reasonable” and unduly discriminatory. A decision is expected by the end of May.

Choice limited to slow or no transition

The issue of how and when to open the capacity markets to more state-sponsored renewable resources has become increasingly contentious in recent years as most New England states have ramped up their clean energy goals. Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Katie Dykes has been particularly vocal in her criticism, at one point threatening that the state would pull out of the ISO marketplace altogether if reforms aren’t made.

With pressure growing, ISO announced last May that it was going to work with the New England Power Pool, a FERC-approved stakeholder advisory group with more than 500 members, to eliminate the MOPR.

“We had about eight months of in-depth discussions, negotiations, presentations, and analyses all focused on getting rid of the MOPR by next year,” Ho said.

During that process, the generation companies proposed an amendment to delay elimination.

“The owners of fossil fuel generation were not happy about the proposed changes to the MOPR and were in opposition throughout the process,” Ho said. “There was a sense that if they didn’t get what they wanted, they would likely challenge it.”

But their proposal was not received positively. On Jan. 11, 2022, NEPOOL’s Markets Committee voted to approve ISO’s draft proposal to eliminate the MOPR as of 2023, with 74% in favor, according to the Massachusetts attorney general’s account. The power generators’ amendment was roundly rejected, with less than 24% in favor.

That left one final vote on MOPR reform with NEPOOL’s Participants Committee. Nine days before that vote, ISO suddenly issued a memorandum saying it “wholly supported and preferred” the generators’ proposed amendment for a slower transition.

“We often adjust our proposals before the final stakeholder votes” after listening to all the feedback, said Matthew Kakley, an ISO spokesperson.

On the day of the final vote, Feb. 3, ISO’s chief operating officer, Vamsi Chadalavada, told the Participants Committee that the transition amendment was their preference in lieu of “prolonged litigation that could result from a failure to compromise,” according to the attorney general’s account.

The amendment passed with 61.49% support, just 1.49% over the required minimum. Only that amended proposal was offered by ISO for a full vote, giving the committee the choice of voting for no MOPR reform or delayed MOPR reform. The amended proposal passed with 69% in favor.

“Our proposal is one to remove the MOPR from the capacity market in a way that protects power system reliability and continues the region’s clean energy transition,” Kakley said. “The proposal received broad stakeholder support and many comments were filed in support of the transition.”

Among the supporters is the Electric Power Supply Association, which said it “strongly agrees that simply eliminating the MOPR without a just and reasonable replacement or accompanying market reforms is untenable.”

The New England States Committee on Electricity said in its comments that it does not oppose the slower transition, so long as the 2025 MOPR elimination deadline “remains firm.”

But many of the comments from private citizens expressed extreme frustration with what they view as the continuation of a major barrier to progress on clean energy. Jon Slote, a Newton, Massachusetts, resident, said he and many of his neighbors are trying to do their part.

“We have installed added insulation, rooftop solar panels and a whole-house heat pump,” he wrote. “And I expect our utilities and regulators to be ‘rowing in the same direction’ with the citizens of the Commonwealth.”

Read the full article in Energy News Network here.

Municipal electric companies slow to incorporate clean energy, often rely on nuclear power

As Massachusetts races to wean utilities off fossil fuels in order to hit its climate targets, the municipal light companies that provide electricity to some 50 communities collectively have far less clean energy in their portfolios than the major for-profit utilities.

That’s the upshot of a new report from the Massachusetts Climate Action Network, which found, for example, 33 of the municipal providers had less than 1 percent of clean energy sources such as wind and solar in 2020.

While some communities are far ahead of others, particularly Concord, Belmont, and Wellesley, overall just 2.43 percent of the total energy mix at the 40 municipal light companies assessed in the report are from clean energy.

Known as municipal light plants, the community utilities combined had about 420,000 customers as of 2019, and provide roughly 14 percent of the state’s energy supply, said Logan Malik, lead author of the report and clean energy director for MCAN, a climate advocacy organization.

“We are seeing leaders — when you look at Concord, when you look at Belmont, when you look at Wellesley, those are three great examples,” Malik said. “But at the same time, because of the lack of regulation and because of the lack of support, we’re seeing that it’s not translating in every instance. And that has real implications for the Commonwealth’s transition to a clean and just energy future.”

The report found that despite the slow progress on cleaning their energy mix, many municipal light plants are technically on track to reach emission goals set for them in the state’s most recent climate law passed in 2021, thanks to a special standard that allows them to include nuclear energy in their calculations, while investor-owned utilities like Eversource or National Grid cannot.

Taking that into account, the report found that 38 percent of the energy mix from municipal light plants is considered “non-emitting.” That sizable percentage comes largely from contracts that municipal light plants have held with the Seabrook Station nuclear power plant in New Hampshire and the Millstone Unit 3 power plant in Connecticut, both of which came online more than three decades ago.

Malik said in his report that the use of nuclear power is also a concern. He wrote of the need for municipal utilities “to rapidly transition away from fossil fuel sources while also recognizing the danger that nuclear energy poses to communities, both in the operation of nuclear facilities as well as in the storage and disposal of nuclear waste.”

Kate Roy, spokesperson for the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company, a nonprofit quasi-state agency that works on behalf of 20 municipal utilities, said the organization is committed to “goals to get to net zero carbon emissions by 2050″ and to “helping the MLPs get there.”

Massachusetts has long required investor-owned utilities to hit annual benchmarks for renewable energy, starting at 1 percent in 2003 and growing to 20 percent this year. But municipal light plants are exempt, and until last year were allowed to meet their energy demands by focusing solely on affordability and reliability.

“Some municipal light plants went out and procured green, renewable electricity,” said Amy Boyd, director of policy at the Acadia Center.

But many then sold off the credits for that energy to investor-owned utilities required to green their portfolios, she added. The income from the sale of the credits meant the municipal light plants were able to lower energy costs for their rate payers, but they weren’t able to count that renewable energy as part of their energy portfolio, because it cannot be double-counted.

The practice of selling, rather than using, renewable credits has contributed to residents in communities with municipal light plants, who on average already have substantially higher median incomes than the rest of the state, having lower energy costs, according to the report.

But the passage of the 2021 Next Generation Roadmap for Massachusetts Climate Policy bill for the first time required municipal light plants to meet emissions thresholds, although it did not limit their use of nuclear energy.

Having a municipal light plant has allowed some communities, like Belmont, to go above and beyond on renewables. Belmont Light, which in 2020 had more than 17 percent clean energy sources and 33 percent of noncarbon-emitting sources, is working toward a fully nonemitting power portfolio by the end of the year, said general manager Craig Spinale. He said that having a Power Supply Policy, which is a transparent and public plan for a clean energy transition, is helping Belmont stay on track.

Clean energy advocates say the structure of the muni-utilities offers an opportunity. In most cases, the plants are run by commissioners who are elected, and those little-watched races may hold great potential for clean energy.

“So many of the decisions are made at the commissioner and board level,” said Casey Bowers, of the ELM Action Fund, which supports progressive candidates running for municipal light board seats. “In some of these races that we’ve been looking at, the winning vote tally is 2,500 or 2,000, so you’re really talking about a local level where every vote truly matters and really does have a say in the direction of the MLP.”

Read the full article in The Boston Globe here.

Lawmakers, some renewable advocates urge FERC to reject ISO-NE plan to delay MOPR elimination

Dive Brief:

  • ISO New England’s proposal to keep its “minimum offer price rule” until 2025 will hurt the Northeast’s efforts to build renewable energy facilities like offshore wind farms and should be rejected, lawmakers, the Massachusetts attorney general and renewable energy advocates and developers told the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Thursday.
  • “The primary effect of the MOPR reform delay would be to impede market entry by offshore wind resources,” Conservation Law Foundation, the Acadia Center and other groups said in a joint filing at FERC. “The ISO has presented zero evidence that such a change in the resource mix will reduce reliability, rather than improve it.”
  • However, the plan is backed by power plant owners, power suppliers and ISO-NE’s market monitor, and the New England States Committee on Electricity, representing the region’s governors, doesn’t oppose it, according to filings at FERC.

Dive Insight:

ISO-NE started a stakeholder process in May to consider options for eliminating its MOPR, which critics contend impedes state energy goals by preventing state-supported resources from winning capacity bids in the grid operator’s annual capacity auctions.

At the time, ISO-NE supported eliminating the MOPR before the next auction set to be held in February. But in January, the grid operator decided to support a proposal to keep the MOPR for two additional years, with a 700-MW exemption for state-supported resources. In its March 31 proposal, ISO-NE said ending the MOPR immediately could lead to the sudden retirement of power plants, threatening grid reliability in the region.

More than 4,700 MW of nameplate offshore wind, or about 1,310 MW of qualified capacity, is slated to begin operating by 2028, the period that would be covered by auctions affected by ISO-NE’s transition proposal, according to New England For Offshore Wind, an advocacy group. The grid operator’s proposed 700-MW exemption for qualified capacity would keep some offshore projects from winning capacity bids, driving up ratepayer costs, the group told FERC.

Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., urged FERC to reject ISO-NE’s proposal, which they said would hurt New England’s decarbonization efforts and lead to higher electricity prices.

“At the very moment when New England should be fully embracing the transition to renewables and the related socioeconomic opportunities, this decision to undermine state actions and renewable energy deployment is a terrible and ill-timed mistake,” they said in a letter to FERC.

Other parties urging FERC to order ISO-NE to immediately end its MOPR include the Massachusetts attorney general, a group of New England state lawmakers and the American Council on Renewable Energy.

Some renewable energy advocates are reluctantly supporting the proposed transition away from the MOPR.

Rejecting the proposal could lead to an extended stakeholder process, possibly delaying the upcoming capacity auction and other market reforms, Advanced Energy Economy, said in a filing at FERC.

“We believe that approval is the least disruptive path forward for the region given where the process leading to this filing has left us,” the trade group said, noting ISO-NE’s abrupt decision to delay ending the MOPR left stakeholders little time to review the plan.

NESCOE, which has sought to end the MOPR, isn’t opposing the delay in ending it because ISO-NE’s proposal provides “a clear, defined, and expedient path for reforming market mitigation rules with a fixed and near-term end-date,” the organization told FERC.

Potomac Economics, ISO-NE’s market monitor, supported the grid operator’s transition plan, saying it would give ISO-NE time to make other needed market changes such as revising how it accredits capacity and accounts for growing financial risk for power plant owners.

“This will alleviate the adverse economic impacts and risks to reliability of implementing the MOPR changes immediately,” the market monitor said.

Power plant owners and power marketers also support ISO-NE’s plan, which was modeled on proposals from Vistra, Dynegy, Calpine and Nautilus Power.

“This graduated elimination of the MOPR will allow ISO-NE and [New England Power Pool] stakeholders the time to make the wholesale market design changes necessary to avoid the increased risks MOPR elimination creates, including implementation of a new capacity accreditation methodology and day-ahead reserve or call-option products in the day-ahead energy market,” the New England Power Generators Association said in a filing at FERC.

The Electric Power Supply Association also backs ISO-NE’s proposal, partly because it gives the grid operator time to put in place other market reforms, according to comments at FERC.

The trade group for competitive power suppliers noted it supports a New York Independent System Operator proposal to eliminate its MOPR because the New York plan includes related market reforms.

Read the full article in Utility Dive here.

Advocacy groups back Massachusetts climate change bills

(The Center Square) – Calls to adopt swift, sweeping legislation to advance a 2050 net-zero emissions target have been sounded in both chambers of the Massachusetts Legislature, and advocates from a number of organizations have backed the plans.

But the aggressive legislative plans, which come a year after Republican Gov. Charlie Baker signed a climate change bill, have also prompted pleas to look at the bigger picture and the extent natural gas might play in the decades ahead.

Two companion pieces of legislation – Senate Bill 2819 and House Bill 4515 – would advance offshore wind and clean energy policy across Massachusetts. The bills have been debated this legislative session, most recently amid Senate deliberations held April 14.

On a more granular level, legislative panels have been digging into the nuts and bolts of potential policies that could be enacted in the years ahead with the 2050 benchmark in mind.

While Baker’s bill set the nearly three-decade mark, Massachusetts has a long road ahead in achieving it, said state Sen. Cynthia Creem, D-Newton, who chairs the Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change.

“In my view, reaching net zero-emissions requires that the future of gas is largely a future without gas,” Creem said at a recent committee hearing. “However, Massachusetts is currently doubling down on natural gas.”

At the April 4 hearing, Creem and other senators on the panel took testimony from a range of academians, lobbyists, grassroots organizers and other interested parties. Creem said the multi-faceted issues that feed into net-zero emissions “are incredibly complex.”

Nearly all of the speakers at the committee hearing encouraged lawmakers to double down on net-zero emissions policies in short order.

But John Buonopane, president of the United Steelworkers union, offered his own take on the matter. The USW represents the New England Gas Workers Alliance.

“We strongly believe that natural gas will continue for many years to be an important and necessary resource for the commonwealth’s clean energy future,” Buonopane said. “We know that with appropriate oversight, natural gas can and probably will remain an efficient, affordable and safe energy for residents of the commonwealth for decades to come.”

If state legislation related to net-zero emissions is not methodically carried out, Buonopane said he is concerned workers within the alliance will be negatively impacted – a scenario, he said, that could have ripple effects through the state economy.

“We are talking about good, middle-class jobs that have taken years to reach the level to be considered a good middle-class job,” Buonopane said. “It is a very important part of this I don’t think is getting enough attention.”

But others testified on the state’s race toward net-zero emissions policies.

Amy Boyd is director of policy at the Acadia Center, an organization that advocates for climate change policy by electrifying buildings and transportation.

“We need a real process in how we pay for heat,” Boyd said. “To put it bluntly, we need a lot more innovation here, a lot more change, a lot more process. I think the Legislature can have a strong role in helping us get there.”

Bob Howarth, a biochemistry professor at Cornell University, also spoke to the Senate panel about several issues, including discussion around the natural gas industry’s clean energy strategy. In particular, Howarth said he was concerned with hydrogen.

“There’s no way it should ever go into a pipeline,” Howarth said. “It’s coercive; it’s dangerous. It should not be used for home heating.”

Read the full article in The Center Square here.

House Democrats reverse course and Legislature passes utility accountability bill

A day after delivering a major setback to Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ plan to hold utility companies more accountable, House Democrats reversed course Wednesday and approved a slightly modified version of the bill.

The legislation would establish key performance measures for electricity providers in areas ranging from reliability to customer relations and impose financial penalties for failing to meet those goals. It also would add whistleblower protections for employees and contractors who report problems with operations. And it would change the way utility companies plan grid upgrades.

Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, had previously criticized the bill, saying utility companies would essentially be allowed to grade their own performance. He railed against the bill as offering “fake accountability.”

But Berry said he would support the bill after a relatively minor amendment offered by Rep. Chris Kessler, D-South Portland, requiring the Public Utilities Commission to ensure that public utilities procure goods and services through a competitive bidding process.

“This is not the bill I would have written,” said Berry, who is an organizer of the Our Power campaign to establish a consumer-owned utility through a citizen referendum, “but it’s now a step forward, so today I stand to take one small step with all of you and the state of Maine to vote, ‘yea.’ ”

The measure passed the House in a 77-56 vote.

The Senate approved the House version of the bill without debate Wednesday, meaning it will likely go to the governor’s desk for her signature.

Clean energy advocates applauded the reversal, pointing to a provision that would require integrated grid planning for clean energy projects.

“Legislators snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, and over a turbulent 24 hours of negotiations, rescued the bill and agreed that it was time to hold utilities accountable for their abysmal, but hopefully improving performance,” said Jeff Marks, Maine director and senior policy advocate at the Acadia Center.

“Energy issues are complex and are often held to the end and heavily fought over during the closing days of legislative sessions,” Marks continued. “This bill was no different, but its impact will benefit Maine’s ratepayers while planning the electricity grid for a clean energy future.”

The bill is aimed at the state’s two investor-owned utilities, Spanish-owned Central Maine Power and Canadian-owned Versant, over poor customer service and unreliable performance.

CMP ranked last in a consumer satisfaction survey last year by J.D. Power.

The bill would require quarterly report cards grading utilities’ ability to meet minimum standards for customer service, complaints, reliability and power restoration. It would impose a fine of $1 million, or 10 percent of annual revenue, for multiple failing report cards. Continued failure could trigger a forced sale to another power company or a consumer-owned utility.

It also would add more protection for whistleblowers who report illegal or improper behavior by a utility, authorize the PUC to audit utilities’ financial information and require utilities to submit regular plans to address the impact of climate change on their infrastructure.

The proposal drew extensive public comment at a hearing before the Energy and Utilities Committee, which struggled to reach consensus and instead voted out three different versions of the bill.

Republicans continued to oppose the bill, saying it will lead to increase electricity costs for ratepayers at a time they can ill-afford them amid record high inflation.

While power companies could not recoup fines from ratepayers, any systemwide improvements to avoid future fines could be recouped, including those to accommodate the grid for more solar projects, he said.

“That is going to have a substantial impact on your constituents’ utility bill,” Sen. Trey Stewart said Tuesday, noting how Mainers already are struggling to pay their bills. “They are frustrated about the number at the bottom of their bill and they are looking to us to make sure it doesn’t get unnecessarily larger.”

Read the full article in the Portland Press Herald here.

Democrats solve intraparty split to advance Janet Mills’ utility accountability measure

AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers advanced a new version of Gov. Janet Mills’ priority utility accountability bill on Wednesday, one day after a previous version failed due to division among Democrats in the House of Representatives.

The bill that passed the House 77-56 on Wednesday will allow the Maine Public Utilities Commission to set service standards for its major utilities, Central Maine Power Co. and Versant Power, and impose penalties if they fail to meet them. It also empowers the commission to work on reliability planning for the state’s power grid and reduce carbon emissions.

Mills put forward legislation earlier this year as a possible compromise between Central Maine Power Co., the embattled utility, and its harshest critics. An amended version of the bill passed the Maine Senate on Tuesday but was rejected by the House as both Republican lawmakers and Democrats who are among the fiercest CMP critics voted against it.

Democrats solved their split on Wednesday to vote for a revised version of the bill. The version that passed both chambers included additional provisions requiring the Public Utilities Commission to look into requiring utilities to use competitive bidding for certain projects and allowing it to audit utilities more frequently.

Among the holdouts on the measure on Tuesday were Reps. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, and Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth. Both have helped lead the public push for a consumer-owned utility in the Legislature. Proponents are now trying to put that issue before voters in a 2023 referendum. Both Berry and Grohoski voted for the latest version.

“This is not the bill I would have written but it is now a step forward,” said Berry, who co-chairs the energy committee and is perhaps Augusta’s most outspoken CMP critic.

Environmental groups that had slammed the Legislature’s failure to pass the bill on Tuesday praised the votes on Wednesday. Jeff Marks, senior policy advocate at the Acadia Center, characterized it as “the most impactful climate and clean energy bill” of the legislative session.

Read the full article in the Bangor Daily News here

Maine Voices: Time is now for utility accountability, modernized energy grid

Now is the time to hold Central Maine Power and Versant – Maine’s investor-owned utilities –accountable for poor performance, and it’s long past time to modernize our electrical grid to meet Maine’s climate and energy independence needs. Mainers are counting on their elected leaders to stand up for them as corporations fail to put the needs of customers first. Never has that been more clear than it is now, as people across Maine struggle with spiking energy costs.

Fortunately, Maine lawmakers have an opportunity to make progress on both fronts by passing an amended version of L.D. 1959, the governor’s utility accountability bill. I was pleased to introduce L.D. 1959 as the lead sponsor, and I knew that we could strengthen this bill through the legislative process to a point where it was deserving of strong support – and that’s exactly what has happened.

Maine people have every right to expect much better service than they’ve been getting in recent years. According to J.D. Power, CMP ranked dead last for customer service among the nation’s largest 145 electric utilities, and Versant tied for fourth worst with the notorious Pacific Gas & Electric. It’s unacceptable. Maine people deserve reliable service, accurate bills and utility companies that are supporting our clean-energy goals.

Personally, I support the concept of a consumer-owned utility and hope that Mainers get a chance to vote on a referendum to shift our investor-owned utilities to a consumer-owned model. But that’s a long-term solution. What lawmakers have before them now is a bill to provide accountability for utilities, starting immediately, regardless of who owns them.

L.D. 1959 sends a clear message to our utilities: Improve your performance, get fined or be replaced.

The amended bill requires the Public Utilities Commission to establish standards in critical areas, such as reliability and customer service. The bill sets mandatory financial penalties and doubles the penalties the PUC can impose, with forced sale as the ultimate penalty for a failing utility. The bill also expands and strengthens whistleblower protections. Maine’s Public Advocate has said that even one or two whistleblower reports could result in major benefits for Maine ratepayers.

The other big part of this bill involves integrated grid planning, which holds the potential to save ratepayers millions of dollars. Maine needs a holistic grid plan as we move to use more renewable and independent energy sources. A stakeholder group last year identified grid planning as a top priority. Right now, the utilities do grid planning on their own. This means utilities do all of their planning behind closed doors, with no public involvement and no mandate to consider what’s best for ratepayers. That has to end.

We know that planning matters. A pilot project in Boothbay is projected to save $18.7 million over a 10-year period. If similar planning were applied to CMP’s grid, it could save ratepayers nearly $1 billion over time.

L.D. 1959 has earned the support of groups including the Acadia Center, the Conservation Law Foundation, Maine Conservation Voters, The Nature Conservancy in Maine and the Natural Resources Council of Maine. The version of the bill coming before the Legislature is the product of hard work and thoughtful compromise. I am proud to sponsor this bill, and I’ll be just as proud to join my colleagues in voting for it in the Senate chamber.

With L.D. 1959, lawmakers have a chance to make significant progress in holding Maine’s utilities accountable and taking big strides in modernizing our electrical grid for the clean-energy future. We owe it to Maine ratepayers to act now.

Read the full article in the Portland Press Herald here.

Democratic split threatens to kill Janet Mills’ utility accountability proposal

AUGUSTA, Maine – A split among Democrats in the Maine House of Representatives led the chamber to reject a bill from Gov. Janet Mills on Tuesday aimed at enshrining penalties for Maine’s largest utilities if they fail to meet certain service standards.

Mills initially put the legislation forward this year as a possible compromise that could bridge the divide between allies of Central Maine Power Co. and its harshest critics. Its failure renders it unlikely that the Legislature will take major steps to address the unpopular utility in 2022.

On the House floor Tuesday, several lawmakers argued that the Democratic governor’s bill did not go far enough to ensure CMP and Versant Power would be held accountable for the quality and costs of service. Lawmakers voted to table it after rejecting a version that easily passed the Senate earlier in the day.

Environmental groups had largely backed the bill, which would have enabled the Maine Public Utilities Commission to penalize utilities if they did not meet certain standards. The amended version that passed the Senate also would have required the commission to adopt plans for the state’s power grid to improve reliability and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It had received pushback on several fronts, however, with progressives saying the state needed to be more aggressive. Among the skeptics were chief proponents of a plan to buy out Maine’s major utilities and replace them with a consumer-owned entity. A referendum aiming to do that failed to get enough signatures to make the ballot this year.

The Mills-backed bill was opposed by CMP and Versant, who argued in testimony earlier this year that their service quality improved and they did not need to be subject to possible penalties. The legislative committee that deals with energy issues ultimately advanced three different versions on the bill.

The criticism before it was shot down in the House on Tuesday came from all sides. Rep. Nathan Wadsworth, R-Hiram, expressed concern that that bill would drive up electricity rates. Rep. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, of the consumer-owned utility faction, characterized it as “merely lipstick” with “no teeth.”

“I will not go home to my constituents and say that I supported this bill and that they can look forward to better than worst-in-the-nation service and high rates because that would be a false promise,” she said.

Proponents of the bill had argued it was a positive step even if not perfect, with Rep. Ralph Tucker, D-Brunswick, arguing lawmakers could “walk and chew gum at the same time.”

Environmental groups expressed frustration with the vote late Tuesday. Jeff Marks, Senior Policy Advocate at the Acadia Center, said it was “unacceptable” for lawmakers to leave town without taking action to regulate the utilities sector.

“After years of last-place customer service evaluations, billing snafus, and other calamities, legislators failed to put teeth into utilities’ performance and hold them accountable, not just for reliability and affordability, but for the very future of the electricity grid,” he said.

Read the full article in Bangor Daily News here.