What Not to Do When You Win Powerball

If every man, woman and child in New England split a $1.2 billion Powerball jackpot, we'd each get $77.  

If every worker in New England got a $1.50 per hour pay raise, the total earnings increase in one month would be equal to that Powerball jackpot: $1.2 billion.  

If the customary wild spikes in electricity costs came under control for just the month of February, New England ratepayers would pocket...you guessed it, Powerball: $1.2 billion.  

Well last month in New England, that's exactly what happened. Ratepayers saved $1.2 billion over what we spent in February 2015. 

See the chart here.

Let's write that out, with all the zeroes.  $1,200,000,000.

Right in our pockets, to spend on cars, food, clothes, tuition... Pretty good for the economy, in all likelihood.

How did this happen, and why is it not front page news?  

It happened for a number of reasons. Here are a few:  Natural gas from the nearby Marcellus region has become so plentiful, it has transformed our energy scene.  Fossil fuel prices are extraordinarily low.  The winter was mild. The New England grid did a good job planning for the customary winter peak crisis. 

The lead story in today's Portland Press Herald was about how Maine's lobster industry might lose $10.6 million per year because of a possible international trade flap.  Nobody wants to see the lobster fishery take a hit, and $10.6 million is real money. It's less than 1% of how much we just pocketed in February because of low electricity costs, yet it isn't news!  

In today's same newspaper, the banner headline was about Maine's forest products industry dilemma, and how biomass electricity generators in are in danger of failing because they cannot compete. This -- along with the cascading bad news about mill closures and other forest industry hardships -- is truly sad news.  

Legislators today are considering whether to subsidize our biomass plants, which in recent years have provided about 25% of Maine electricity generation. The "subsidy" could come in the form of government-mandated power purchasing contracts at above market prices.  A tough call, with all those jobs on the line, and with New England preparing in the next few years to close a quarter of our dispatchable base load and peak load generators.  

Yet in Hartford and Providence and Boston it's still considered cool to claim your utility is "buying" Maine wind energy.  

Even as our reliable biomass generators spiral toward their demise, Maine and the New England states continue to grant above-market government-mandated contracts to non-dispatchable generators (wind) that provide barely any jobs, and that cannot replace or even displace a dirty old fossil fuel plant, even as wind sprawls its massive and expensive infrastructure across Maine's magnificent landscape. We are blowing billions building unnecessary but otherwise fashionable energy infrastructure that does us no good, yet we wring our hands as our existing biomass plants are allowed to wither and die.   

Friends of Maine's Mountains has consistently argued against government-mandated contracts, especially when they are at above-market prices (remember Statoil?).  And most especially when they are for low quality, unnecessary, high-impact generation like wind.  Adding insult to injury, the monetary subsidies are increasingly favoring wind over the higher quality renewables. 

Our energy priorities sometimes amount to fashion statements rather than sound policies.  Today's legislation in Augusta is a band aid approach to a problem of our own making.  The Press Herald article mentions the extraordinarily high costs that policymakers and regulators saddled onto ratepayers a couple decades ago.  In the last decade we've continued to meddle with the same risky favoritism, but we've abandoned biomass in favor of wind, which we are apparently already beginning to regret.  

We do not envy legislators in Augusta who this afternoon are grappling with this dilemma, a dilemma that they helped create, and one that we've seen before.  

Just as quickly as we gained $1.2 billion, we could blow it.  Listen to the Utilities Committee this afternoon:  CLICK HERE.