In coordination with nine other Maine colleges, Bowdoin is taking organized legal action against a recent rate increase proposed by the Central Maine Power Company (CMP), which provides the College with 17 million kilowatt hours (kwh) of electricity per year. If the Maine Public Utilities Commission (MPUC) approves the rate increase—which is essentially a surcharge for any entity producing its own electricity within the state—the College estimates its electricity costs will rise $283,149 per year.
After signing a 20-year contract over winter break with SolarCity, a California-based solar panel firm, Bowdoin is now obligated to go through with plans to build a 1.6 million kwh solar array, even though it could now cost upwards of $5 million dollars over the lifetime of the contract.
“We took a calculated risk that hopefully the rate case, when it gets through all the regulatory proceedings… is not the rate case that it is today and doesn’t have as big a financial impact on the College,” said Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer Katy Longley.
Bowdoin and the Maine Independent College Association (MICA) are hoping that the MPUC sides with educational institutions across the state. The rate increase targets so-called “behind the meter” power generation, which Longley said is a collective interest for all of the member-colleges of MICA, as well as many businesses and homeowners across the state.
“If you’re producing power by yourself, and you’re using it before you get power from CMP, it’s behind the meter,” said Director of Finance and Campus Services Del Wilson, who among other things oversees procuring rights to the College’s energy.
According to a February 13 article in the Times Record, CMP—which only transports and distributes electricity—has justified this increase as a way to cover its infrastructure costs which must be maintained regardless of whether they are being used.
“On a cloudy day they have to keep providing electricity to us, if our solar is not working, and so they need that same infrastructure there to have an uninterruptable supply of electricity,” said Longley. “It’s a valid argument. The question is, what’s the right cost structure? It is absolutely right that CMP has to pay for their poles and wires, but it’s also good for the College to have behind-the-meter generation.”
Laurie Lachance '83 P’13, president of Thomas College in Waterville, Maine, wrote a testimony for the MPUC on behalf of Bowdoin and the eight other schools in MICA. Lachance, a former state Economist and Corporate Economist for CMP, asserted that the severity of the rate increase suggested it was meant as a punitive, not recuperative, measure.
“The rate appears to be intentionally designed to discourage investment in onsite generation by CMP’s customers by imposing unsupported fees that would make such investments uneconomic,” Lachance wrote in her testimony. “In this manner, CMP is attempting to use its position as monopoly provider of distribution and standby services to discourage competition in the area of generation.”
Bowdoin has explored other options of fighting this proposal outside the MPUC. According to Matt Goodrich ’15, a leader of the Bowdoin Climate Action (BCA), President Barry Mills approached him and others to help organize students in support of the College.
“He said ‘We’re trying to get the student body activated over this issue. Can I rely on you to help make this happen?’” said Goodrich.
In a meeting with Longley and Mills, Goodrich, Hugh Ratcliffe ’15, Anna Hall ’15 and Bridget McCoy ’15 discussed the issue and whether groups like BCA would be interested in helping the College fight it.
“Bowdoin Climate Action decided this is something we can absolutely get behind,” Goodrich said. “We figured it could be a really helpful way to promote more activists on campus, especially if we had the College’s seal of approval.”
Andrew Miller-Smith ’15, a leader of the Bowdoin Democrats, reciprocated Goodrich’s sentiments about the opportunity for students to rally around this issue.
“I’ve been meeting with leaders from BCA and Bowdoin Student Government (BSG) and right now we’re figuring out what we can actually do to have an impact on this rate case,” said Miller-Smith.
“This tax is very worrisome for two reasons: The first is financial, for Bowdoin and for everybody else in Maine who has invested or who wants to invest in renewable energy—it’s going to make it a real financial burden, and secondly...it puts a real damper on the green movement if investments in carbon neutral or greener energy come with this massive financial repercussion,” he said.
The looming rate case battle has not seemed to dampen the College’s excitement for the planned solar panel array, which according to Longley has jumped its most recent hurdle—getting the Department of Education to approve leasing the land on the former Brunswick Naval Air Station.
At an open meeting on Wednesday with representatives from SolarCity, several Bowdoin professors expressed interest in the possible educational opportunities available with data from the solar panels once they are constructed.
“This is our first foray into solar—we’ll see how it goes, see what the regulatory environment looks like,” Longley said. “If costs continue to fall, solar is going to be on everyone’s radar screen as an alternative energy source in the next 10 years.”
-Marisa McGarry and Natalie Clark contributed to this report.