Viewpoint: Electricity innovation needed

by Gary Friedmann


A Climate to Thrive (ACTT) is a nonprofit citizens organization with the mission of making Mount Desert Island energy independent by 2030. We have petitioned Maine’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to intervene in the sale of Emera Maine to ENMAX, a Canadian utility owned by the City of Calgary, Alberta.

Maine law requires that this sale benefit Maine ratepayers. We are asking the PUC to require transformative innovations in the way electrical monopolies do business in Maine.

Conditions of this sale should include benefits to low-income residents, improve the environment, address the very real threat of climate change (a priority of the Legislature and the Governor), improve grid reliability and resilience, encourage electrification of heating and transportation, implement best practices in smart grid technology, rapidly move Maine toward renewable sources of energy and explicitly and proactively encourage innovation through pilot programs.

Implementation of a significantly-sized microgrid as a demonstration project in a favorable location, and financial and technical support for low-income households for energy efficiency retrofits and solar and renewable energy installations would provide many of these important benefits.

ACTT is poised to develop a microgrid pilot project. Since 2017, it has tripled the photovoltaic capacity on MDI, and hired a solar program manager whose goal is to double current solar generating capacity in 2020 and to double it again in 2021.

ACTT seeks to develop a “Freedom Lab” to implement cutting-edge technology, modulate demand through storage and flexible loads, encourage beneficial electrification, explore transactive energy and manage rapidly increasing distributed energy resources as MDI’s local generation achieves a greater and greater share of its electricity needs.

Power outages like those experienced in Maine over the last two years have become commonplace with the increasing intensity of storms driven by climate change. Proactive experimentation with microgrids that can “island” under outage conditions and improve grid management at all times is now warranted.

The electrification of heating and transportation is also essential to a low-carbon future. ACTT’s Freedom Lab would integrate electric vehicles (EVs) and heat pumps into the local economy, and enable new strategies for MDI’s communities — and the utility that serves them — in transitioning effectively, safely, reliably, and affordably to this future.

Up-front financing barriers to solar panels, heat pumps, EVs and other new technologies comprise some of the biggest challenges to Maine’s energy independence.

On-bill financing of these investments (often called “Pay As You Save”) is among the most efficient and effective ways to provide low-cost capital to ratepayers. Since repayment is secured by the meter and tied to energy cost savings equal to or greater than current annual bills, this approach puts a wide range of household energy improvements within reach of all ratepayers.

To take advantage of these opportunities, we have petitioned the PUC to allow us to intervene in this sale. Requiring a pilot micro-grid and a pilot low-income financial and technical support project in Emera Maine territory are pertinent to many of the power sector issues now coming before the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

A Climate to Thrive is excited to bring its experience and resources to support innovations that will help Maine take the lead in this arena.

Gary Friedmann is a member of the Board of Directors of A Climate to Thrive. He lives in Bar Harbor and serves on the Town Council.

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