Legislative Pulse: Fighting Energy Subsidies and Federal Expansion in Maine

Published July 27, 2016

Editor’s Note: Two-term state Rep. Beth A. O’Connor (R-Berwick) serves on the Energy, Utilities, and Technology Committee. O’Connor has also served as vice-chairwoman of the Maine Republican Party. 

Burnett: Maine is considering replacing its net-metering law with alternative policies to support solar power. What are your thoughts on government support for renewable energy?

O’Connor: Net-metering policies are being reviewed and changed nationwide, and Maine is no exception. The Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities, and Technology worked on legislation exploring the best ways to implement responsible policy addressing the expansion of solar energy in Maine, but it did not become law. The Public Utilities Commission is taking a comprehensive look on the best policies to adopt going forward regarding solar energy, with net-metering reform being a key part of that review.

The idea behind net-metering reform should be to allow an individual to sell the solar electricity they don’t use to their utility company for the same price they sell it to you.

The proposed legislation was supported by Central Maine Power, a subsidiary of the Spanish wind-power giant Iberdrola Spain, which is not in the benevolence business; they are in the business of raking in tax credits and taking advantage of federal loans allocated for renewable-energy projects. These projects take money from taxpayers and ratepayers. The [Public Utilities Commission] estimated the proposed reform would have cost Maine electric ratepayers about $20 million annually, as solar energy is valued at about 20 cents per KWH—double the wholesale rate of energy. Under current law, Maine’s electric-power customers pay even more for solar.

I object to both the current and proposed laws. While, personally, I think there is a place for net metering—because solar is unreliable and not available on-demand—it should be the lowest-value energy and any and all solar power should be reimbursed at the lowest wholesale rate. To the extent net-metering households sell excess power to the utility [companies], it should be at the wholesale, not retail, rates.

Burnett: Environmental groups are pushing for a new national monument designation in the North Maine Woods. Does Maine need greater federal control over its land and resources? 

O’Connor: In my judgment, Maine really does not need the proposed national monument in the Katahdin region. The region has no special attributes that should be embodied in a national monument. A proposal to support a national monument was examined by Maine’s legislature  in legislation titled “An Act Regarding Consent to Land Transfers to the Federal Government,” and despite heavy lobbying on this issue, the legislature voted against the national monument on a bipartisan basis.

In 1818, in U.S. v. Bevans, the Supreme Court ruled a state’s right to control property within its borders was an essential part of its sovereignty. The creation of a national monument in Maine would override the sovereignty of [Maine]. It is likely this designation would have a detrimental impact on hunting in Maine, an integral part of our tourism industry and a huge economic driver in the state. Federal land is regulated differently than state land, most plainly in the stricter regulation of firearms and ammunition. The majority of Maine citizens cherish their arms-bearing rights and would prefer not to be saddled with the laws, rules, and penalties made under the authority of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

We must also consider the possibility federal authorities may not make the monetary investments needed to ensure proper care for a national monument—considering the current $12 billion in maintenance backlog on federal lands. I find it unlikely Maine will rise high on the priority list in that backlog, leaving Maine citizens bearing the costs. 

Burnett: You have long been an advocate for ending government support for ethanol production and use in Maine and nationwide. Why?

O’Connor: Corn ethanol in our fuel is a very costly racket. It costs us economically, ecologically, and it may be harming the air we breathe. The Renewable Fuel Standard takes billions of dollars from taxpayers and consumers and funnels it back to politicians, who pass the cash to corporate giants, who then return it as campaign contributions to get those same politicians elected, and so on.

We know the combustion of ethanol creates increased acetaldehyde in the air we breathe. Auto-exhaust research has shown low dose exposure to acetaldehyde may be sufficient to gradually damage proteins, enzymes, and other cellular structures in the brain and other organs.

Acetaldehyde can cause a depletion of vitamin B1, B12, and B9. Even mild chronic B1 deficiency can produce brain-related symptoms, such as emotional instability, confusion, depression, fatigue, irritability, headaches, sensitivity to noise, insomnia, decreased short-term memory, brain fog, and a feeling of impending doom—a feeling I often get walking through the State House doors.

Concerned about these facts, Gov. Paul R. LePage issued an executive order requiring the Maine Center for Disease Control and the Department of Environmental Protection to analyze the available studies on the health and environmental impacts of burning gasoline mixed with ethanol and report its findings by January 1, 2017.

I think the governor and Maine’s legislature are correct to be concerned about the economic and human health impact of ethanol and in confronting the issue head-on. As Maine goes, hopefully, so goes the nation.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute.