The Soviet-style energy policy of Paul LePage

Here’s something I bet you didn’t know: Maine’s electricity generation prices have actually gone down over the last several years.

That’s right. The cost to produce residential electricity has dropped roughly 34 percent in the last 8 years, from 9.9 cents/kilowatt hour in 2008 to 6.5 cents/kilowatt hour in 2016.

But while production costs are dropping, the costs to get electricity to our homes are going up. Costs to move energy along poles and wires went up roughly 13 percent over that same period.

In a nutshell, our high energy costs are about moving it, not making it.

Gov. Paul LePage during a Feb. 10 news conference on solar power and the Public Utilities Commission. Chris Cousins | BDN

Gov. Paul LePage during a Feb. 10 news conference on solar power and the Public Utilities Commission. Chris Cousins | BDN

This plain fact was absent from Gov. Paul LePage’s theatrical press conference a few weeks ago. The governor held court in his cabinet room with a crudely constructed art project depicting two houses and some electrical wires. While he did a bang-up job promoting craft-making for the limited-of-skill, he did very little to advance the discussion of Maine’s rising energy prices.

LePage was upset about the increased use of solar panels on residential rooftops, thus the art project. Rather than provide evidence of a problem, however, the press conference made it clear that this governor is again relying on knee-jerk biases to form his official position.

As power generation costs decrease, and the cost of getting power to homes increases, rooftop solar presents an ideal alternative to the status quo. When you generate electricity at home, you don’t need as much of the transmission system to move it around — and that means you rely less on the side of the equation with increasing costs. And as fewer people rely on the aging and overburdened transmission system, it costs less for the rest of us to maintain.

LePage doesn’t see it this way, though. He’s used an inapt class warfare argument to cast the solar industry as some plaything of the wealthy. According to LePage’s logic, when rooftop solar consumers stop paying to get electricity delivered to their homes, it leaves the burden of maintaining our transmission system to be divided up among the remaining ratepayers. Since rooftop solar requires a significant initial investment, the governor sees this as “the wealthy” passing off the cost of transmission infrastructure onto “the poor.”

As LePage’s top energy adviser put it recently in a newspaper interview, “Poor people get poorer, and rich people get solar.”

LePage and his adviser are simply wrong about this, and, as a Republican, their contorted logic is really hard to take.

Essentially, the governor is advocating for a closed, socialized electricity market. Everyone uses the same fossil fuel power, and everyone pays the same cost. In fact, LePage made his energy philosophy loud and clear when he told reporters that electricity deregulation was “the worst thing that ever happened,” and that monopolies are actually better because they save on redundant administrative costs. (Yes, he actually said this.)

Needless to say, these are not the words of a fiscal conservative who believes in a free-market economy. They are more similar to the theories of an early 20th-century Soviet bloc economist. Our governor is very confused about this issue.

LePage’s position on solar is kind of like opposition to flying cars. If the technology evolved that allowed people to start using flying cars, LePage would oppose it because it would force the people who couldn’t afford flying cars to pay more to maintain the roads.

This is exactly the kind of socialist entropy that has caused stagnation in Maine’s economy for decades. It stifles innovation, and it strips individuals of choice.

The reality is, LePage’s position is not based on logic, or economics, or concern for high energy costs. The governor is opposed to solar power because it is emblematic of the environmentalist movement, and as a knee-jerk reactionary right-winger, he simply can’t stomach it. He is so guided by his visceral hatred of anything outside of his ideological silo that he would turn our state’s energy policy upside-down to keep things like solar power from succeeding.

Solar power is not the end-all solution to Maine’s energy problems, but it is a piece of the puzzle. More important than the semantics of solar policy, though, is the need for Maine to have a logical overall policy on energy. Right now, LePage is tossing around disparate policy proposals that conflict with logic and that ignore the true drivers of cost.

Energy is a very complicated policy area, and the lack of institutional knowledge within the governor’s staff, combined with his hostility toward his own hand-selected Public Utilities Commission and ratepayer advocate, has left Maine without a coherent energy plan. It’s time for this administration to start putting some thought and logic into this issue, and leave the model-making to the art teachers.

Lance Dutson

About Lance Dutson

Lance Dutson, a principal of Red Hill Strategies, is a Republican communications consultant. He has served on the campaign teams of U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Kelly Ayotte, as well as the Maine Republican Party.