What Will Maine’s Clean Energy Future Look Like Under New Leadership?

Nov 9, 2018

Many in Maine's energy industry are cheering the election of Janet Mills to the office of governor, as well as a Democratic takeover of the Legislature. Renewable energy advocates are perhaps the loudest, after contending with numerous roadblocks outgoing Governor Paul LePage put in the sector's way during his tenure.

In an interview before the election, Mills promised a new direction on energy policy — beginning with her own cabinet.

"I think we want all cabinet members to be looking at energy, but I would elevate the energy office to a cabinet level position,” Mills says. “Because I think it's so important, and it crosses all strata of demographics in Maine, the need for lower energy costs, the need for more modern energy sources."

Under Governor LePage, the development of many such modern energy sources — land-based wind, offshore wind, solar power — have been suppressed or sidelined. Developers now are preparing for a more benign or even encouraging political environment.

"As an industry at large, there's been about $3 billion worth of investment standing by, waiting to come into Maine, very eager to come into Maine for renewable energy,” says Paul Williamson, a principal with Apex Clean Energy. Apex Clean Energy is a solar and wind power developer that has had a tough time moving projects forward under LePage, stymied most recently by a moratorium he imposed on all wind projects in the state. Now, Williamson says, the company's $200 million Downeast Wind project in Washington County will seek permits to break ground as early as next year.

"Really excited to work with Janet Mills and her administration in formulating next steps that allow this investment to happen,” says Williamson. “And I think it's beyond simply our project and our industry..."

Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, agrees. He says it won't be just Democrats who will be part of the new energy picture. During the LePage era, he says, the governor's anti-renewables attitude cast a pall over the entire Republican caucus.

"The ideology and the governor's aggressive huffing and puffing about how bad renewables are clearly impacted the ability to have reasonable discourse around energy for the last eight years,” Payne says.

One lawmaker who saw several attempts to improve the prospects for building out solar power in Maine vetoed by Governor LePage, Bowdoinham Representative Seth Berry, says he expects that a breakthrough is now likely.

"Whether it's a bipartisan bill from three years ago or the bipartisan bill from one and two years ago that we worked on that came so close to overriding the governor's veto, I'm quite sure that we will move forward and take advantage of this great job creation opportunity that solar represents for Maine,” Berry says.

Some observers say things will change not just because LePage will be off the scene, but because with the election of Mills, voters were sending a clear message: they want action on climate change.

"I think what we've seen in Maine for the first time is an actual effect on the outcome of a statewide election of policies on climate change,” says Tony Buxton.

Buxton represents a coalition of large energy users, such as paper mills, called the Industrial Energy Consumers Group. He notes that during the campaign an environmental group, the Maine Conservation Voters, launched a television and social media effort that emphasized the threat climate change poses to coastal economies and the lobster industry.

"That ad ran a lot,” he says. “And I think if you look at the vote for Janet Mills, it was highest along the coast, and was diminished further inland."

Buxton is one of the many stakeholders who will be closely watching Mills' early moves on energy issues, particularly around Central Maine Power's proposal to build a billion-dollar transmission line in Maine. The line would cut a 50-mile swathe through the forests of western Maine, to bring low-polluting hydro-power from Canada to customers in Massachusetts.

Buxton’s group supports the project, and so does Governor Lepage. But during her campaign, Mills was skeptical. The day after her election, Mills told Maine Public Radio that at the least, she wants LePage, who's had recent contacts with Hydro-Quebec and CMP's parent company, to leave negotiations to her.

"This is not for him to do,” she says. “I think it's for the next governor, which I expect to be on January 3, to make sure that the people of Maine are heard, to make sure that if there's a deal cut, the people of Maine get the best possible deal. And I expect to be at the table."

Mills can expect lobbying from all sides on the CMP project, and on key appointments too: that new cabinet level energy office that she says she'll create, for instance, and appointments to the environmental and utility agencies that will regulate Maine's energy industry in the coming administration.

Originally published 5:12 p.m. Nov. 8, 2018