Hitting Singles to Win the Game

A year ago, renewable energy advocates in Maine welcomed incoming Gov. Janet Mills’ reversal of her predecessor’s eight years of opposition to solar, wind and biomass generation. So how have we fared since?
By Bill Bell | February 25, 2020

“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try, sometimes you find you get what you need.”  The Rolling Stones, 1968.

A year ago, renewable energy advocates in Maine welcomed incoming Gov. Janet Mills’ reversal of her predecessor’s eight years of opposition to solar, wind and biomass generation. So how have we fared since? 

Our first at bat produced a solid single to right. Rep. “Harold  Trey” Stewart, from northernmost Maine, worked with Matt Bell, Northeast Pellets owner, to introduce a bill requiring that schools receiving state funds for new heating systems “have demonstrated a preference for modern wood heating systems.”  Stewart testified before our legislature’s education committee—of which he was a recent member—as the newly elected assistant House minority leader. Equally important was enthusiastic testimony from former superintendents, one of them now a legislator, whose schools had installed chip or pellet heat 10 years ago when millions of dollars of federal Recovery Act funds went to replacing fossil fuels in Maine schools. Predictably, state school officials spoke against anything vaguely reminiscent of a mandate (a dirty word in Maine) for a particular form of heat. The bill was amended and then passed unanimously, with Maine law now requiring that applications for state funds show the applicant to “have considered heating systems that use renewable, locally sourced, wood-based fuels.”  

Our next time at the plate: another solid single. Critical to the success of pellet heating boilers in Maine has been the rebate program provided by Efficiency Maine, our state’s energy agency. Five years ago, when Efficiency Maine was providing a $5,000 rebate to homeowners installing this equipment, I wrote in this column that “Pellet boiler firms are installing at a combined rate of a unit per day.” Then, the price of oil dropped. Efficiency Maine, for a number of reasons, reduced its incentive to $3,000. The firm distributing Kedel boilers in Maine went belly up. This spring, citing higher pellet boiler rebates in the other New England states and invoking legislative support, our Maine Pellet Fuels Association worked with Efficiency Maine to restore the previous boiler incentive, and actually increase it to $6,000 per residence.  

Our next initiative faces an uncertain future. At the urging of a key staff member who was previously with Maine’s chapter of the Nature Conservancy, Mills invited a handful of to make the case for wood heating. After listening, she asked, “Now, where do you suggest the money might come from to support this?”  We had a ready answer: the more than $5 million recently clawed back from a failed state attempt to keep a number of biomass electric plants running. The newly elected president of the Maine Senate, a northern Maine logger by profession, had already incorporated these funds in the proposed “Act to Establish the Wood Energy Investment Program.” The governor nodded, smiled and said, “And these are precisely the funds I need to balance my budget.” The budget was balanced and passed; we are now seeking another source of funding to assist with wood heating and cogeneration projects.

Our major accomplishment of the past year has received little recognition, for good reason. It’s complicated, and it won’t kick in until 2021. Even then, it will have a modest beginning, but against considerable odds, we convinced our legislature to include thermal renewable energy credits, or T-RECs, in a massive upgrade of Maine’s law governing our state’s renewable energy portfolio standards. Under this law, one of the most ambitious in the nation, by 2030, renewable resources must account for 80 percent of electric sales in Maine. By 2050, all electricity sold in Maine must come from renewables. Of importance to us: Electricity suppliers serving Maine must, in 2021, also purchase thermal RECs equal to 0.4% of total sales, increasing to 3.6% of total sales by 2030. This means that schools, factories or even a large aggregation of homeowners heating with wood can generate these T-RECs and sell them at a price, offsetting a significant portion of their fuel costs.

There are, of course, a lot of details to be worked out with the Maine Public Utilities Commission. It would have been easy for our legislature to set aside this proposed section of law, as had happened in recent years. But elections matter. The new director of our governor’s energy office was a strong advocate. Democrats, now with majority in the Maine Senate and a larger majority in the House, wanted to bring about major changes. Republicans, while digging in their heels on fiscal issues, continued their strong support of Maine’s forest products industry and the utilization of low-grade wood.

Great credit also goes to third base coach Charlie Niebling of Innovative Natural Resource Solutions, whose experience with New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation T-RECs program, as well as numerous technical advisory trips to Maine’s capitol, brought this important runner home.

Author: Bill Bell
Executive Director, Maine Pellet Fuels Association