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Updated: August 22, 2022 Focus on Greater Bangor & Northern Maine

Energy boom or bust? As Aroostook waits for new law’s impact, officials see dollar signs

Photo / Jerry & Marcy Monkman, Danita Delimont, Adobe Stock The Mars Hill Wind Farm is a prominent landmark in Aroostook County.

Although northern Maine has long tried to draw on its natural resources to provide renewable power, the region hasn’t been able to fully tap into that potential.

But now work is underway to boost generation of clean electricity in Aroostook County and direct that power south, while creating jobs and economic opportunities in the rural area.

Under a 2021 state law, the Maine Public Utilities Commission is looking to connect amore renewable power sources with ISO New England, which operates the power grid across six states, including most of Maine.

The law calls for new wind and solar generation to help meet Maine’s energy and climate goals, in addition to biomass facilities to support the regional forestry industry.

Courtesy / Office of state Sen. Troy Jackson
Maine Senate President Troy Jackson

A request for proposals, published last November, seeks “viable and cost-effective” projects for portions of Aroostook and Washington counties. Bids for transmission projects were due in March, while proposals for renewable generation were due in early May.

Most of the bids will remain confidential until November, although one company, Con Edison Transmission, has chosen to publicize its proposal.

Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, who championed the legislation, says he’s been told “bids are going to come in as good if not cheaper than what we’re paying right now” for electricity. But he adds a caveat.

“The intent was that there’s a lot of low-cost power in Aroostook that needed to get out, had a chance to get out, but the transmission [issue] was holding it up,” he says. “If it costs more to ratepayers, I don’t support that.”

But cheaper power for county residents won’t be a direct benefit, some say.

Maine Public Advocate William Harwood points out that nothing in the commission’s RFP indicates the potentially cheaper power would be sent to northern Maine residents, who generally aren’t connected to ISO New England.

“The electrons [created by these generation projects] are going to go in one direction. They’re going to leave Aroostook County and head toward ISO New England,” says Harwood. “And there are going to be no electrons heading north [from these facilities] to serve customers in Aroostook County.”

That’s because the County isn’t directly connected to the New England power grid. Instead, an organization known as the Northern Maine Independent System Administrator does, acting as the “referee for sellers and buyers in the market,” Harwood explains. Versant Power serves as the grid’s operator.

Any extra energy is then pushed through New Brunswick’s transmission system before being redirected to ISO New England’s grid. The process results in higher costs for northern Maine.

“That’s made it basically untenable to have any generation that’s beyond what’s actually going to get consumed locally here,” says state Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Aroostook. He pegs that regional demand at around 70 megawatts.

Work that results from the RFP won’t unhook northern Maine from the Canadian grid, according to Harwood. However, there could be potential to later build transmission infrastructure between the new projects and Aroostook County. 

In Harwood’s opinion, the RFP won’t do much to lower rates for Mainers in the region. Their prices might go down “indirectly” if there is a reduction in ISO New England’s prices and power is then routed up through New Brunswick, Canada, and back into Aroostook.

“But that’s a bit of a stretch,” Harwood says.

Jackson doesn't agree that cost-savings for Aroostook County ratepayers will only be indirect.

"Yes, we won't actually be getting the actual electrons [from any new generation facilities], but because that much more power is coming into New England - low-cost power - that's going to drive down rates," he said. "The same way that whenever natural gas goes up and drives up rates, we pay higher rates for electrons that aren't produced by natural gas, but because the market is driven the rates up, then we pay more and conversely whenever we have this much power that drives down rates, although we're not getting those actual electrons we will pay less money."

"It's just supply and demand ... and that's going to effect Aroostook County rates, too," he added.

Economic trade-offs

Paying comparatively higher energy costs in northern Maine puts pressure on local businesses, according to Shawn Lovley, the director of the Aroostook Energy Association.

If the business is part of a larger company with units spread across the country, the local unit can be at a disadvantage.

The impact of energy costs are “huge, especially whether you’re competing globally against your competition or you’re competing internally,” he says.

Photo / Courtesy of Aroostook Partnership
Paul Towle is CEO of the Aroostook Partnership, a community development program.

Paul Towle thinks those decisions are already happening in Maine. He’s the president and chief executive officer of the Aroostook Partnership, a regional public-private community development organization.

“I’d hate to see us lose a big manufacturer like that, because they couldn’t afford to do business in Maine, we couldn’t afford to manufacture products,” says Towle. If a company has “got four or five plants across the country — or even more around the world, for that matter — they look at where they can produce product that they can make a margin on.”

But northern Maine could see economic gains from projects that go forward under the RFP.

“The long-term positive aspect is all that tax revenue, because every one of those new windmills is adding value to Aroostook County … it’s adding value to all those communities,” says Stewart.

In addition, the RFP specifies that bids will be evaluated in part on their economic development effects for northern Maine. Minimum criteria of that requirement aren’t laid out, but local officials have some ideas about how to meet it.

“Building a new fire station for a town, yeah, that would be good,” says Towle. “But what can you do to help attract entrepreneurs or attract new business or help to develop businesses? Can they put up private funding to help match state and federal grants for developing new projects and new businesses?”

For Stewart, the two community needs where developers could have the greatest regional impact are supporting education in northern Maine’s unorganized territories and helping to fund the county jail.

“I’ve been consistent in what I’ve said to [developers], which is if they want to invest basically hundreds of millions of dollars into Aroostook County, and they want to do it at the county level,” says Stewart.

Ryan Pelletier, the Aroostook County commissioner, wants the public to weigh in on economic development plans that result from the proposals.

“I think policymakers and bureaucrats and all the politicians, even, I think they tend to think they know best. But I think sometimes it’s better to go right to the people and find out from them what they’d like to see in their own communities,” he says.

Short-term gigs

While many are confident that significant numbers of jobs will be created, some business leaders are wondering how the short-term construction work involved would really benefit the County.

“What are we going to do [after the construction projects are done], because all of us employers are going to have to fill our vacancies, even while solar and wind is being produced or constructed,” says Lovley.

He acknowledges that the wages and benefits will help workers, but “it puts manufacturers in a tough situation.”

Stewart is also concerned about the short length of many of the jobs, as well as the number of out-of-state workers who would have to be brought in. But he hopes local community college programs for turbine technicians can help fill some of that workforce gap.

“If they employed 500 [workers] for five years, that’s wonderful, excellent. I’m never gonna say, ‘Please don’t do that,’” says Stewart. “We want that, but it is a shorter-term gig than probably something more consistent. That’s the nature of the beast.”

Other leaders aren’t worried.

“Anytime we can bring people or workers to Aroostook County, even if it is short-term, at least there’s a chance to keep them and I think that’s a good thing,” says Jackson.

“I’m definitely not deterred about if we can get these projects going, we’ll find the workforce because they are good-paying jobs, and they’re right in line with the things that people in Aroostook County already do.”

Jeremy Payne, the director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, disagrees with the premise that short-term jobs might not be useful.

“Nothing is said about the temporary nature of construction jobs for roads and bridges, and yet for some reason it is frequently talked about as it relates to renewable energy build-outs,” says Payne.

“I think the bottom line is: You’re not talking about a 30 MW potential. In Aroostook County, you’re talking about hundreds, if not thousands, of megawatts.”

He continues, “Oh yes, there’s going to come a time where a construction crew will finish their project. But if we do this right, and the pricing comes in the way we think and hope it’s going to, I think there are going to be jobs for many, many years up there.”

Even if laborers come from outside the region or Maine, Pelletier still sees plenty of upside.

“I think having new people in the area, spending money and shopping, that always helps the economy,” he says. “Those folks, even if they’re here temporarily, are spending their income while they’re here, going out to eat, buying gas, grocery shopping, all the traditional things that you need that turns the economy and employs people indirectly.”

Photo / Courtesy of Maine Senate Democratic Office
Maine state Senate President Troy Jackson has announced the 2023 Maine Senate committee assignments.

‘Talked about throughout my life’

Turning Aroostook County into an energy hub “has been something that has been talked about throughout my life,” says Jackson, who’s 54.

He believes there are several reasons the Legislature hasn’t taken more action on the idea until now. They include current concerns around energy prices, as well as wind-power developers previously going “at it on their own” to pitch a project without much community input.

Jackson also thinks it now helps that he’s the first Maine Senate president to hail from Aroostook County in over half a century.

“We’ve been dealing with electric rates that are just killing people across the state and have people really on edge about how they’re going to make it through these winters,” he says.

“So I think with all those things wrapped together and a Legislature that also understood there’s an opportunity to get lower-cost energy right here in Maine — homegrown, made-in-Maine — then why wouldn’t we at least try to want to take that opportunity?”

Article updated 8/23/2022 at 12:00pm

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