Maine’s Public Utility Commission has some tough decisions to make in the coming year if the state is to become energy independent and a viable exporter of energy in decades to come.

The PUC’s task to protect ratepayer interests is key, as it tries to review two important, but now competing, proposals that seek similar goals.

The first, a beefed-up Maine transmission grid proposed by Central Maine Power Co., would improve the reliability of the state’s existing energy grid and, according to CMP, ensure that excess power made in Maine, but not consumed here, could be readily exported.

The reliability fear is new against growing energy demands in New York and southern New England that could cause grid failure and possibly blackouts in Maine. This is why the PUC has essentially said that adding capacity to our existing system makes sense.

Reliability is the key criterion for funding power-line work, though it doesn’t make the projects any easier to site. Nor does reduced demand for power in poor economic times help justify its immense expense.

CMP’s transmission expansion is estimated to cost $1.5 billion. Only 8 percent of that would be paid by Maine ratepayers; the other 92 percent would come from ratepayers across New England whose states belong to the same cooperative grid – ISO New England.

This also means Maine ratepayers are on the hook for 8 percent of reliability projects approved in those states. So far, the price of enhanced grid reliability in Maine and New England remains a moving target, but promises to be huge.

A proposal pitched as an alternative is an effort to create new solar generation for local consumption by GridSolar LLC, a Portland firm. GridSolar suggests we solve the reliability issues instead by producing more local power for local use, thereby reducing the burden both on existing generation and transmission capacity.

Generating power with solar panels spread in unused open spaces is a viable energy option for Maine. New generating capacity would serve the interests of ratepayers, not only by providing means to improve system reliability, but by adding alternative production capacity.

More power generated locally should also lower electricity rates, if the tricky financials of GridSolar’s project hold. GridSolar principal Richard Silkman says solar-derived electricity can be delivered to Maine homes, under his plan, for as little as 3 cents a kilowatt hour.

Maine’s energy independence, though, doesn’t lie with either of these proposals singularly. A combination of increased local generation – wind, solar, biomass or something else – and an enhanced ability to move that energy to markets where it’s needed is the best plan for Maine.

The ideal would be competitors GridSolar and CMP working together to produce a third alternative that considers expanding grid capacity while strengthening our ability to generate electricity locally, especially with green technologies.

Mainers need to keep all options on the table. The thought of Maine as a net exporter of energy is attractive; we urge the PUC to find ways to make this happen.

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