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Commentary: Maine’s renewable-energy industry gets a double shot in the arm

Opinion

Major new solar and offshore wind projects help position us as a hub to start, grow and maintain energy businesses.

Maine has incredible natural energy resources that can and should be an engine of its economy. New solar and offshore wind projects help position Maine as a hub to start, grow and maintain energy businesses in a global market. This week, Maine put out the welcome mat and opened the door to being a leader in clean energy.

First, two solar development companies on both sides of the Atlantic joined forces to advance projects to generate 350 megawatts of renewable energy capacity across eight Maine communities. The international partnership between European Union-based BNRG Renewables and Portland’s Dirigo Solar LLC is moving forward with large-scale solar projects to produce enough electricity to power 78,000 homes.

The next day, a $100 million joint venture publicly emerged to develop floating offshore wind technology off the coast of Maine, potentially bringing tremendous economic, energy and environmental benefits to Maine’s coastal regions and the state. The public-private partnership includes Maine’s flagship educational institution, the University of Maine, and New England Aqua Ventus LLC, a collaboration between technology giant Mitsubishi Corp. and the second largest offshore wind company in the world, RWE Renewables. According to a joint statement by Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden: “Maine’s offshore wind resource potential is 36 times greater than the state’s electricity demand, making this project so significant for Maine’s clean energy future.”

Read the full Op-Ed in the Portland Press Herald here.

Stop investing in natural gas. Invest more in renewable energy.

Opinion

With increasing renewable energy mandates in almost every New England state and growing amounts of imported power, there is only so much of the energy pie left for natural gas. Ten years ago, some might have called natural gas a “bridge fuel.” But it’s 2020. A better analogy is that we’re already halfway across the river.

That’s based on the results of a recent study from Acadia Center, The Declining Role of Natural Gas Power in New England. It shows that new natural gas power plants like NTE Energy’s proposed plant near Killingly — and the pipelines to supply them — are going to be hard to justify.

My colleagues and I who wrote the report question the value and economic rationale for additional gas plants, with our scenarios suggesting that by the end of the decade, natural gas would only be needed to meet about a quarter of the demand that it does now.

We looked at two scenarios: continued expansion of natural gas supply and generation capacity, and no additional investment in gas infrastructure. Both show similar reductions in the amount of natural gas-fired electricity, leading eventually to the region’s gas power plants being used at less than 10% of their capacity by the end of this decade.

Read the full Op-Ed at The Hartford Courant here.

Op-ed: Merrimack Valley tragedy offers climate change opportunity

The significant investments required in the energy infrastructure of the impacted communities present an opportunity to re-think what energy options are available to best meet the needs of these communities, not only for this winter but for many years to come. Doing so can lead to practical, cost-effective actions that will provide a host of benefits for the residents and businesses in these communities: reduced energy costs for ratepayers; safer, more resilient homes and businesses; improved indoor air quality; and, meaningfully, less climate pollution.

Read the full article from CommonWealth Magazine here.

Op-ed: Rising transportation emissions are a threat to Maine’s environment

When National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Secretary Elaine Chao and acting Environmental Protection Administration Secretary Andrew Wheeler announced their agencies’ rollback of federal clean car standards in August, they pledged to “ Make Cars Great Again.” In doing so, they have threatened our air, water and public health — and will increase costs for consumers.

Federal clean car standards directly reduce the amount of fuel burned for transportation by requiring auto manufacturers to increase fuel efficiency, saving consumers money and limiting transportation emissions. Consumer Reports says the proposed rollback could cost consumers as much as $100 billion, and the increased pollution is definitely not great for our air or oceans.

Read the full article from Bangor Daily News here.

Our Turn: Erika Niedowski and Meg Kerr: Addressing rural concerns about clean energy development

Renewable energy siting challenges are not unique to Rhode Island, but they are particularly pronounced given the state’s small size and high population density. Rhode Island has made ambitious commitments to clean energy deployment and carbon emissions reductions, including 45 percent reductions by 2035 and 80 percent by 2050.

As the state progresses towards its renewable energy goals, pressures are increasing to develop land with solar or wind resources, causing concern in some communities, especially rural ones. With smart local siting policies, both “green” goals of clean energy and land conservation can be achieved: Rhode Island communities can enjoy both the benefits of renewables and be good stewards of our landscapes and habitats.

The Renewable Energy Siting Stakeholder Committee is discussing ways to prioritize the siting of renewable energy in places that minimize environmental impacts, including rooftops and previously altered environments like landfills. Unlike Massachusetts, Rhode Island does not have policies that specifically encourage siting in such places.

Read the full article from the Providence Journal here.

Carbon Tax Bill Moves Slowly Despite Need for Urgency

The renewable-energy advocacy group Acadia Center noted that the fee on power-plant emissions under the RGGI program has been the single-biggest tool for reducing Rhode Island’s carbon emissions. RGGI states also have had stronger economic growth than non-RGGI states.

The bill is supported by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, Citizens Climate Lobby, Sierra Club Rhode Island Chapter, Environment Council of Rhode Island, People’s Power & Light and Save The Bay. Washington, D.C., conservative think tank R Street Institute supports a carbon tax but wants all of the tax revenue returned to the public and not used for renewable-energy projects.

Read the full article from ecoRI here.

Virginia Forges Ahead on Climate, Clean Energy

The states participating in RGGI have all seen incredible public health and economic gains since the program took effect. A recent report from Abt Associates concluded the reductions in air pollution achieved under RGGI have generated an estimated $5.7 billion in public health benefits.

At the same time, Acadia Center estimates electricity prices in RGGI states fell by 6.4 percent while prices rose by a similar margin elsewhere. Overall, energy efficiency programs supported by revenue raised under RGGI in just its first six years were estimated to yield $1.56 billion in energy bill savings.

On top of this, the RGGI states’ economies outpaced the rest of the nation. By 2016, emissions had dropped by 33 percent, while the RGGI states’ economy grew by 29.7 percent.

Read the full article from Alt Daily here.

Viewpoint: Need for Mass. clean transportation policy

When the world convened recently in Bonn, Germany, for the annual United Nations climate-change negotiations, there was a particular focus on the role of U.S. states, cities and businesses in reducing carbon pollution. Massachusetts, along with six other states and the District of Columbia, announced a regional pledge to work together with stakeholders to “create the clean transportation system that the region needs to meet today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.”

Cleaning up and modernizing the transportation system will be a major undertaking, but it doesn’t have to be a painful one. Massachusetts has demonstrated the ability to address similar challenges through innovative policies and regional collaboration that reduce emissions while improving the economy. The commonwealth played a key role in launching the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the nation’s first multi-state program to reduce carbon pollution from power plants.

While RGGI has helped Massachusetts make great strides in reducing electric sector pollution, the transportation sector still emits around the same amount of carbon as it did in 1990. Every year, pollution from the transportation sector causes asthma attacks and leads to preventable deaths, taking a massive financial and human toll on Bay State residents. Making matters worse, low-income communities and communities of color face a disproportionate share of the impacts from this pollution.

We can’t transform our transportation system overnight, but we can do more to invest and plan for a better future. From electric vehicle infrastructure to smart growth and improved public transit, we have an array of options to reduce pollution and increase transportation access while benefiting the economy. A RGGI-like program could go a long way to accelerate the adoption of these transportation solutions.

The RGGI cap-and-invest model has helped cut emissions from power plants in the region by 40 percent since 2008, while driving $2.8 billion in regional economic growth and creating nearly 30,000 jobs. Acadia Center analysis shows that RGGI has helped the region outpace the rest of the country in both emissions reductions and economic growth. In Massachusetts alone, these RGGI-driven emissions reductions have resulted in $798 million in avoided health costs.

Recent analysis conducted for the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI) shows that regional carbon policy — like a cap-and-invest program — would add billions of dollars to the regional economy, reduce harmful pollution and generate revenue for reinvestment in transportation improvements, accelerating the transition to a cleaner, more efficient, more accessible system. A recent report from Ceres and M.J. Bradley and Associates found that the benefits of investments in electric vehicle infrastructure outweigh the costs by a margin of three to one.

Expanding clean transportation options should be a top priority for our economy. Businesses want 21st century cities with transportation systems to match, and they’ve proven to invest resources and create jobs in areas that have them. To keep Massachusetts’ economy thriving, we must embrace clean transportation. Market-based solutions like the RGGI model offer a promising path forward, and we urge Governor Baker and his peers across the region to act swiftly in establishing such a program.

Mindy Lubber is president and CEO of Ceres, a sustainability nonprofit organization. Daniel L. Sosland is president and executive director of Acadia Center, a nonprofit, research and advocacy organization.

Commentary: A way New York can cut electric bills

Since 2014, New York has been pursuing ambitious reforms to its energy system. Collectively called Reforming the Energy Vision or “REV,” this process has propelled New York to a position of regional and national leadership. REV has put New York on a path to modernizing its electric grid, dramatically increasing renewable energy sources and giving consumers more control over their energy use and costs. With these cutting-edge goals, New Yorkers are right to think that the state is poised for an exciting clean energy future.

However, New York cannot hope to achieve its goals for consumers, energy efficiency, and clean energy if it doesn’t confront a stubborn problem: how to reform the outdated ways consumers pay for electricity.

One immediate opportunity is to reform the use of high fixed monthly charges collected by utilities. Also referred to as basic service charges or customer charges, these fixed charges are flat fees that every customer pays, regardless of the amount of electricity she uses. Across the country, fixed charges for residential customers typically range from $5 to $10 a month, but in some states — notably New York — these charges are significantly higher.

New York’s fixed charges are actually some of the highest in the nation. Acadia Center found that current average residential customer charges for major investor-owned utilities in New York range from $15.92 to $24 per month, higher than all neighboring states. National Grid has a residential fixed charge of $17 in New York, but only $5 in Rhode Island and $5.50 in Massachusetts. Central Hudson’s is even higher — $24, which it is seeking to increase to $25. Remarkably, New York’s fixed charges are higher than those in Wisconsin, a state that has been widely criticized for approving large fixed charge increases since 2014.

High fixed charges conflict with REV’s goals for a clean, modern, consumer-friendly electric system. They give customers less opportunity to lower their electricity bills by using less energy. This reduces the incentive to invest in energy efficiency and technologies like solar power. With less incentive to save energy, customers also tend to increase their electricity use, requiring utilities to spend more money to keep the lights on. Energy efficiency makes it easier for New York to meet its strong commitments to clean energy. When high fixed charges hinder new efficiency investments, they imperil those commitments.

High fixed charges also disproportionately burden low-income customers — directly contradicting goals for a modern, equitable energy system. Low-income consumers typically use less electricity than average, so they generally benefit from lower fixed charges. While a high fixed charge might still represent only a small fraction of a bill for higher-income consumers, these charges can represent a large portion of a low-income consumer’s bill, making energy costs proportionately greater for those on whom the burden is already greatest. New York needs electricity pricing that works to alleviate this injustice, not exacerbate it.

Connecticut, like New York, has high fixed charges, but with action from a broad coalition of consumers, labor and clean energy advocates, it has begun the process of reform. In late 2016, the residential customer charge for The United Illuminating Company, the smaller of Connecticut’s two utilities, was reduced from $17.25 to $9.67 per month. An upcoming rate case is likely to reduce the residential fixed charge of Eversource Energy, Connecticut’s larger utility.

New York should follow suit. While New York’s Public Service Commission should be commended for rejecting proposed increases in fixed charges since 2015, the PSC needs to take the next step and begin reducing utilities’ already too high fixed charges. In National Grid’s current rate case, the utility has proposed to keep its customer charge at $17. Acadia Center has filed expert testimony in that proceeding stating that a reasonable range for customer charges would be between $5.57 and $8.30.

A reduction to this range has broad and deep support. Recently, 52 organizations released joint principles in favor of reforming and lowering residential fixed charges in New York. Policymakers should take up this strong call to ease energy bill burdens for consumers and help ensure that REV’s ambitious reforms will succeed and benefit everyone.

Cullen Howe is New York state director and senior attorney at Acadia Center, a non-profit regional research and advocacy organization committed to advancing the clean energy future.

This op-ed was published in the Albany Times Union here.

Forum: We need to reduce energy costs, not tax ratepayers

Op-ed by Bill Dornbos and John Harrity in the New Haven Register.

The Senate Republican proposal to raid ratepayer funds for energy efficiency and renewable energy would decimate successful programs that reduce energy costs for Connecticut businesses and families. But that’s not all. Their proposal would also stifle job growth in the state’s rapidly expanding energy efficiency and solar industries, and it’s about the worst thing Connecticut could do as the harmful impacts of climate change become more apparent every day.

The Senate Republicans’ revised budget would not only divert $68 million annually from Connecticut’s award-winning energy efficiency programs into the General Fund for the next two fiscal years — a major cut that would reduce electric efficiency programs by about one-third — but it would also plunder almost half of the ratepayer funding for Connecticut Green Bank and its renewable energy programs.

In doing so, the Senate Republicans would convert cost-effective investments that save consumers money into a new energy tax on ratepayers to shore up the state’s budget deficit. Every dollar invested in energy efficiency last year produced $3.89 in lifetime savings on utility bills. But this new energy tax would slash that productive investment and then, even worse, cause significant and immediate job losses in Connecticut’s energy efficiency and renewables sectors, crippling these thriving industries at a time when we need to foster local economic growth and job creation to increase state revenues.

These raids also run completely counter to our state’s governing energy strategy, which, wisely, makes efficiency our first fuel source. The benefits of this choice are many and undeniable. Energy efficiency investments made in 2016, for instance, will save consumers an estimated $962 million in lifetime bill savings. Those same investments will also generate approximately 12,000 jobs in Connecticut because energy efficiency replaces fossil fuels imported from out of state with in-state labor. Last year’s investments will also protect public health and the environment by cutting carbon emissions and local air pollution.

The Senate Republican’s proposed budget inflicts even more harm by raiding $26 million annually from the market-based Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Unfortunately, the Democrats’ budget also raids RGGI, which reinvests money from carbon emission auctions in the energy efficiency programs and in the Green Bank. This funding was intended to reduce energy costs and speed the deployment of local clean energy, like rooftop solar — and it has worked.

Plus, the Green Bank has leveraged its RGGI funding to help attract tens of millions of dollars in private investment for in-state projects. Manufacturers and businesses helped by these investments have seen reductions in energy costs. And these reduced energy costs mean more competitive Connecticut companies sustaining more jobs for Connecticut workers.

Beyond these economic arguments is the critical concern about undermining our commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change is the most important issue facing all of us for the rest of our lives. And we are fortunate to live in a state that has provided bipartisan leadership in addressing this issue. Governor Malloy’s recent announcement that Connecticut would remain committed to the standards of the Paris Climate Agreement – despite President Trump’s withdrawal from the pact — is just the latest example of such leadership.

Connecticut’s legislature has mandated ambitious, yet achievable, goals for reducing in-state emissions. Harnessing ratepayer funds to invest in zero-carbon efficiency and renewables is a critical means to achieving those goals. We cannot afford to take a break or divert funds or wait for a good budget year to do this important work. Climate change is real, it is relentless, and it is unfolding more quickly than predicted. And it has a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable residents of our state, including working families.

Our kids, and their kids – and children around the world – expect and deserve to grow up in a world that is habitable. We must not step back from our responsibility to future generations in a short-sighted and misguided effort to balance the budget.

Protecting ratepayer funds that support energy efficiency and clean energy programs is good for consumers, good for homeowners and businesses, good for workers, good for people who breathe our cities’ air, and good for the climate.

John Harrity is president of the Connecticut State Council of Machinists. Bill Dornbos is Connecticut director and senior attorney at Acadia Center. Both serve on the steering committee for the CT Roundtable on Climate and Jobs (www.CTClimateandJobs.org).