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Maine Panelists: Cheap Canadian Power is a Myth

PORTLAND, Maine — Cheaper Canadian power is a myth. That's the consensus from two former Maine public utilities commissioners who spoke about Maine's energy future at the University of Southern Maine Friday morning.

Instead of looking to the north as a way to strengthen the state's energy portfolio, the panelists agree that Maine should take another approach: invest in energy efficiency and foster offshore wind development.

The panelists were part of Envision Maine's broader summit looking at ways to bolster entrepreneurship in the state and strengthen the new building blocks of the economy, including education, technology and renewable energy. And when it comes to energy they say governors around New England can be instrumental in developing policies that help states get on the ground floor of the revolution that is quietly taking place — moving away from reliance on coal and oil and toward solar, wind, battery storage and even biomass.

But Maine Gov. Paul LePage, meanwhile, remains focused on importing energy into the region.

"Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maine have joined together to demand that our Legislature lower the cost of electricity, and you can do that by buying low-cost hydro-electricity," he says.

Such electricity from Canada, the governor has repeatedly said in town hall meetings, has to be part of the solution. But former PUC Chair Thomas Welch, who served on the commission for about a decade until last year, says that's just not possible. He says he'd like to ban the phrase "cheaper hydro from Canada" altogether.

"I've never seen it," he says. "Never expect to see it. Can't imagine why anybody would sell it to us."

Welch says Canadians will only sell hydro at the New England market price, which is typically higher than Maine's.

"So what rational Canadian executive would say, 'Let's sell it to Maine at less than we can get it for from Massachusetts?'" he says. "So they don't and they won't and, in fact, they should be put out of office if they tried."

Former PUC Commissioner David Littell, who now works with the Regulatory Assistance Project advising governments on energy and environmental issues, says he agrees there's no such thing as inexpensive power from Canada.

But Welch and Littell agree with LePage about another one of his energy priorities: increasing supplies of natural gas. Littell says the big question is whether ratepayers should subsidize natural gas pipeline expansion in New England.

"And you have to ask why private investors aren't making those investments," he says. "Is it market failure or is it that it's too risky? And if it's too risky why would ratepayers and why should ratepayers be doing that?"

Littell says a better investment in his mind is to increase long-term energy efficiency funding across the six New England states. Welch agrees that big investments in energy efficiency should come first. Both are also encouraged that prices for solar and wind are becoming more competitive and that the Department of Energy has recently announced that it will invest several million dollars in the University of Maine's experimental offshore wind project.

Maine, Welch says, has a tremendous resource there, and needs to figure out a way to capitalize on it in the future.