On November 2, motivated by opposition to the New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC) transmission project, Maine voters overwhelmingly approved Question 1, the citizen’s initiative to amend state law regarding construction of electric transmission lines, including banning certain projects and requiring legislative approval for those that cross public lands. The line proposed by Central Maine Power in conjunction with Hydro-Quebec would have connected the Maine power grid with Quebec as part of a Massachusetts plan to export hydropower and displace fossil fuel generation.

The controversy over the NECEC project has crystalized critical issues that Maine must grapple with, including how to transition to a modern energy system that benefits communities, protects critical lands and habitat, and serves all consumers equitably while rapidly shifting away from fossil fuels towards reliance on cleaner, safer electric options needed to meet the state’s climate targets by 2030.

Maine is already witnessing the damaging impacts of climate change. From increased storm damage and flooding, to alarming threats to lobster habitat, Maine’s economic future and quality of life is tied to its climate future.  Maine must shift from fossil fuels like heating oil and natural gas to clean energy options. Over the next  decade, Maine can do this by expanding electric building heating and electric transportation choices; increasing clean energy generation, storage, and delivery of renewable energy; and modernizing its electricity grid. This transition will require a clean and equitable transmission and utility distribution system and a shared vision to build it.

To ensure good decisions that earn public support, Maine must fundamentally reform its outdated approach to energy planning and decision-making. Simply put, the current energy planning and utility business model is no longer compatible with the transformations necessary to address climate change, electrify the economy, and incorporate public input. Currently, electric utilities are charged with the responsibility to plan for energy needs and then decide which energy projects to propose and build. Once constructed, utilities and other energy companies earn revenue from these projects.  This system creates fundamental conflicts between planning and investment choices. And it fails to take a comprehensive view of all the technologies, fuels, and efficiency options available to meet the energy needs of the state and communities.

To reform the system, Acadia Center is recommending that Maine enact two fundamental changes we call Reforming Energy System Planning for Equity and Climate Transformation (RESPECT). First, RESPECT removes conflicts of interests by separating the entity that conducts energy planning from the entity that builds, owns, and earns revenue from the projects.  The planning entity would have a public interest charge – not a financial one. Second, the energy planning entity would have the tools to  meet energy, heating, and consumer needs while specifically addressing state climate requirements and equity goals. This will allow more focused consideration of  clean, effective energy solutions, including building weatherization, heat pumps, solar, and storage.

Maine has started down this road. L.D. 1682, enacted earlier this year, requires the Maine Public Utilities Commission to consider compliance with Maine’s climate statute in all decisions. If this law had been in effect when the PUC was considering the NECEC project, the carbon emission reductions promised would have been tested in a robust, measurable, and verifiable way. With “climate” elevated on equal footing with affordability, reliability, and utility profits, future PUC decisions will help save ratepayers money, improve equity and environmental justice outcomes, and support decarbonization.

In the wake of the divisive referendum, a new framework must emerge to modernize the electricity grid with greater stakeholder engagement and the holistic planning that Maine deserves. The alternative is continued delays in building the energy future we need at great detriment to Maine’s economic, environmental, and consumer future.

Dan Sosland is president of Acadia Center, a Rockport based non-profit research and advocacy organization focused on climate change and clean energy solutions that address economic, consumer and equity needs.