The front lines in the battle against climate change are rarely as glamorous as the issue itself. Yearly intergovernmental climate meetings, failed bills in Congress, idiotic shouting matches on Fox News—these are all the headline-grabbing facets of the movement, which too often obscure the importance of the more day-to-day struggles happening outside of the sensationalist limelight. Although it’s clear that the U.S. government has acted negligently and dropped the ball on climate change, this doesn’t mean that the movement has followed suit.
Important campaigns are being run everywhere and at all levels: concerned individuals are installing solar panels on their homes; colleges and companies are striving for better environmental standards; advocacy groups are pushing local governments for better legislation. And while it’s true that these struggles may not carry the full weight needed to tackle the problem, they are (at the moment) our front line of defense against climate catastrophe and thus are worth protecting.
Recently, Bowdoin College has found itself deep in the trenches of this struggle, and I’m not just referring to the important divestment and neutrality movements. In conjunction with many other Public Utility Commissions (PUCs), our utility provider Central Maine Power (CMP) is seeking state approval for a devastating rate change on its customer base that maliciously penalizes renewable energy production.
Specifically, CMP power has proposed a new standby fee that will charge every customer with on-site energy production—even a single solar panel—according to their highest hourly usage.
While customers that produce their own energy actually consume less, CMP’s planned tariff will charge them on the fact that it must still be able to provide energy to them at all times, even though this delivery might be on standby. Those who buy less will be forced to pay more.
What this means for Bowdoin is that the College will now have to pay more for its heating facility and the solar array that is in development. How much? Try $289,000 per year, or roughly an 11 percent increase to our annual $2.5 million energy bill. This is not small change or something that Bowdoin can just pull out the checkbook for.
But there’s way more to this than just the initial price tag. As much as the College often struggles in its quest for carbon neutrality by 2020, Bowdoin’s new 1,300 kilowatt solar installation—set to launch this summer—is a very serious and laudable step in the right direction. But it’s also a substantial financial investment and risk: we stuck our neck out assuming no one would change the rules of the game, but CMP is trying to do just that.
Suddenly our ability to pay back the investment in solar becomes a lot more problematic. Instead of reaping the financial benefits after 10 to 12 years, the College might now have to wait decades. What are the odds then that Bowdoin would even consider a similar investment in the future? Carbon neutrality and climate responsibility look much farther away than 2020 in this new picture.
But this isn’t just an issue new to Maine: similar new rate structures are in the works all across America—23 states in total at the moment. Millions are finding themselves in the same situation as Bowdoin, where artificial constraints on energy production are killing renewable energy.
It’s been said by the more conservative players in the energy game that a movement away from carbon polluting energy can only occur once renewable technology can compete economically. Renewable technology has finally begun to reach this point—that is, until utility companies declared war.
In a recent report titled “Disruptive Challenges” released by the Edison Electric Institute—the trade group of U.S. investor-owned utilities—the utility monopolies decided that it was finally time to squash out competition from solar technology, recognizing it as a substantial threat to their monopoly. They were tired of being forced by states to pay individuals and groups for producing and distributing energy for them, and they were worried by the rise of energy-independence and micro-grids.
Yet no one really seems to have noticed, except for a handful of players such as Bowdoin and other solar providers, who will experience particularly devastating financial losses. To date, there has been just one article published about this in Maine, and no major national publications have picked up the story.
Maybe it’s because the workings of PUC’s are inherently unsexy, or maybe it’s because the legal framework through which these rate changes occur is too opaque. Regardless, this is one of those hidden battles that we cannot afford to lose; the ramifications are too huge.
The solar panel industry is in its infancy. Groups have just begun to invest in clean energy at a level that is actually beginning to change the overall energy picture of America. With this proposed fee, people like your neighbor might not buy that one solar panel because they’ll have to pay even more for it, or some green-minded company like IBM won’t even consider more renewable energy for the next 20 years.
The stakes are high and the voices too quiet. It’s time to call on CMP to reassess its supposed commitment to the environment and customer satisfaction; it’s time we tell our state government that this is unacceptable for Maine and that the PUC monopoly must be reined in.
Write CMP, write your local newspapers and elected officials, and post on Facebook or Twitter. Let’s make sure we guard our frontline and win the battles we need to win.
Hugh Ratcliffe is a member of the class of 2015.