A politician who has bragged that he was “Donald Trump before Donald Trump,” Republican Governor Paul LePage of Maine fits the classic profile of an energy tyrant. That is, a high government official who uses his or her political power to kill rooftop solar against the clear will of the people.
The word tyrant is not too strong. Let’s go back to the Revolution for an analogy to prove it.
In protecting the state’s monopoly utility Central Maine Power today, LePage has taken a page straight out of the eighteenth-century playbook of King George III and his own favorite monopoly, the British East India Company.
LePage’s Crony Capitalism
With the passage of the Tea Act in 1773, King George III gave the British East India Company a monopoly on sales of tea to the 13 American colonies. This was a bailout for the company, a cash cow for George III and his cronies who ran the trading concern, which paid the British government £400,000 per year.
By attempting to drive small American tea merchants out of business, the Tea Act so angered the colonists that it lead to the Boston Tea Party.
In the same way that George III tried to protect the ailing East India Company by destroying their competition in the 1770s, so in the last few years, Governor LePage has tried to protect monopoly utility Central Maine Power Company from competition by rooftop solar producers.
Like the rugged New Englanders they are, Mainers love to make their own solar power at home and gain freedom from utility overlordship. Though held back by a lack of incentives found in other New England states like Massachusetts and Vermont, rooftop solar has been growing steadily in Maine over the last few years.
It the pro-solar trend continues, Maine utilities stand to lose millions of dollars in revenues over the coming decades. Small-scale solar development, along with energy efficiency upgrades, could reduce earnings for a typical Northeastern utility like CMP by 24% over 20 years, according to a study by the US Department of Energy, according to the Bangor Daily News.
So, LePage stepped in to protect the company. In February 2017, LePage appointees on Maine’s Public Utility Commission ordered a phase-out of Maine’s net metering program.
This move met with howls from the public and in June 2017, the Maine legislature passed a bill to override the PUC order and save net metering. The bill also ordered the PUC to commission a study on the value of solar to all ratepayers in the state to develop a more fair way to compensate solar homeowners in the future.
Despite strong support from the public and bipartisan backing among state legislators, it was no surprise that LePage vetoed the bill, leaving in place his own PUC’s evil plan to kill net metering in Maine.
As Sean Mahoney of the Conservation Law Foundation, and one of the bill’s leading champions, wrote in the summer of 2017, the legislature tried to override the governor’s veto and make the bill law despite LePage’s opposition.
But despite overwhelming support from Maine families and businesses – including many CLF’ers – last week, the override effort failed. The political hardball of LePage and House Republican leader Ken Fredette (as well as the last minute, disingenuous lobbying of Maine’s principal electric utilities, Central Maine Power and Emera), was enough to peel off 8 republicans who flipped their support of the bill to side with LePage’s anti-progress stance.
Central Maine Power has made donations to both LePage and the Republican Party in Maine, some of them timed suspiciously to look like a quid pro quo for anti-solar actions by LePage’s administration, according to the Energy and Policy Institute.
Two Monopolies Protected by their Governments
The utility didn’t stop at trying to influence government to quash solar power in Maine. It also tried to fool the public, bringing in a front-group funded by the national utility lobby called We Stand for Energy to convince Mainers without solar that the bill would raise their power rates just to subsidize homeowners who had solar.
Solar Patriots Step Forward
The fight is not over. Like modern day Sons of Liberty, at the end of January 2018, a group of four protesters from a Quaker meeting got arrested at Central Maine Power’s office in Augusta to draw attention to the utility’s nefarious efforts to lobby against solar.
Members of the group called the protest “the first-of-its-kind Solar Counterlobby” that was meant to “literally and figuratively shine a light on CMP’s lobbying efforts to undermine solar power in Maine.”
And like a modern-day John Adams or another of New England’s great legal minds of the Revolution, Sean Mahoney and his public-interest law firm, the Conservation Law Foundation, are standing up for freedom in court. In this case, it’s the freedom of Mainers to make their own solar power at home.
Mahoney and the CLF are suing the Maine Public Utilities Commission to save net metering in the state.
“We plan to show the court that the rule [to kill net metering] is invalid,” Mahoney writes, “and that charging Mainers to use their own, home-produced power is illegal.”
We’ll argue that these fees constitute unjust discrimination against folks who are simply being independent by producing their own electricity (and helping the environment along the way). And we’ll argue that the facts about the costs and benefits of solar and net metering don’t support the Commission’s decision.
Mahoney hopes to see the PUC, whose members were hand-picked by LePage, in court this fall.
— Erik Curren, the Solar Patriot