Supporting Renewable Power
Two-thirds of Americans want to “prioritize clean energy sources,” the Pew Research Center reports. But for energy consumers, deciphering the jargon of electricity generation can be disempowering.
The federal Department of Energy website used to offer helpful guidance on green power choices. No more. Look to the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) website for advice on choosing an electricity supplier and you’ll find just 88 words.
Maine could offer a website like the “Energy Switch” one in Massachusetts, where consumers can review a list of electricity suppliers that specifies percentage of renewable energy provided and whether that power comes from new projects like wind. That’s a key distinction: not all renewable power is equal in terms of pollution and climate change. Most of the power marketed as green and renewable here – including the Maine Green Power Program sponsored by the Maine PUC – relies predominantly on power generated from aging biomass plants or hydropower dams.
These suppliers do not expand clean energy markets with new projects that replace oil- and coal-burning sources. And there’s growing scientific controversy over whether biomass even qualifies as carbon-neutral, as reported recently by Yale’s e360.
Every generator of renewable power – whether an outdated biomass boiler or a new solar array – earns “Renewable Energy Certificates” (RECs) that act as the currency of clean power markets. (The EPA has a short video explaining how RECs work.) There is no way to tag the electrons that travel to your home from electricity suppliers through transmission and distribution lines (known collectively as the grid and maintained by your electricity distributor – either Central Maine Power or Emera Maine). RECs provide that identification, giving financial credit for electrons coming from renewable power sources.
RECs can be either Class II (the predominant form in Maine’s energy market), which come from established renewable generators like dams and biomass plants, or Class I, which come from newer power sources like rooftop solar arrays, solar farms and wind projects. An ill-considered bill now before the Maine Legislature, LD 1699, seeks to blur this important distinction by renaming old dams as “new,” making it harder still for consumers to distinguish which projects actually expand the renewable power supply.
So what does all this mean for the bewildered but well-intentioned electricity consumer? To hasten the transition to a green energy future, here’s what you can do:
1. Consider installing solar panels. Panel costs have dropped markedly (recent trade decisions, not withstanding) and a 30-percent federal tax credit is still available.
If you install grid-tied solar and find yourself generating more electricity than you use, share your solar wealth with a family member or friend through an “unadvertised special.” As long as you’re willing to put a second account in your own name, you can allocate a percentage of your energy there – effectively covering some or all of that electricity bill.
2. If solar is not practical in your living situation (given a condo, rental property or shady site), you can buy into a community solar farm and decide – with fellow owners – to hold onto the RECs you earn. If you sell them on the open market (typically in Massachusetts where prices are better), electricity suppliers mandated to purchase a percentage of renewable power are the likely buyers. That utility essentially buys “rights” to your green power, and you can no longer take satisfaction in reducing your carbon footprint or expanding the “green” slice of the energy pie.
3. The easiest path is to simply acquire Class I RECs (those supporting wind and solar power), either directly from an electricity supplier or through your monthly electricity bill. To help consumers identify legitimate suppliers of new solar and wind power, there are verification groups (such as Green-e). At present, that site lists 9 verified companies offering RECs in Maine and one that provides electricity sourced entirely from wind. Be aware that going with wind-powered electricity could add 10 to 15 percent to your annual bill, costing an additional $50 to $100 for typical Maine households. Interestingly, a Yale study last fall found the average American is willing to spend $177 more per year on energy bills in order to reduce global warming.
4. Choice No. 4 is more imperative than option: Make your voice heard in this election year! Through seven long years under this governor, Maine has slid far behind other New England states in fostering clean energy jobs, reducing carbon emissions and enhancing energy security. Significant gains with renewable power depend on getting visionary leadership in the Blaine House and Maine Legislature.
In the short term, voice support for LD 1444, a bill that would greatly expand the number of participants permitted in a community solar project. It would also repeal the Maine PUC’s recent “gross metering” decision, a rule so retrograde as to be feudal – giving utilities the right to charge their vassals (aka customers with solar arrays) for power generated and consumed at home.
Then look to 2019 and support candidates at local, state and federal levels who will make clean energy a priority.
© Marina Schauffler, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.