Governor LePage considers new MPUC commissioner

Governor Paul LePage said on Tuesday, Feb. 14 that he is considering appointing James C. LaBrecque as Commissioner of the Maine Public Utilities Commission (MPUC). MPUC Commissioner Carlisle J. T. McLean’s position will be open when her term expires in March.

Solar energy advocates see it as continued suppression of renewable energy due to LaBrecque’s opposition to past solar projects.

The announcement came four days after LePage expressed criticism of the Maine Public Utilities Commission’s decision not to repeal a law requiring utility companies to pay solar energy users for the excess energy created by their solar panels. This practice is called net-metering and basically means that solar energy users may subtract the value of the energy they have created from their electric bill.

The value of the energy solar users create is up for some debate, prompting the commission to reduce the rates at which new solar energy users may be credited. Utility companies will continue to credit solar energy users who sign up before 2018 at the previous rate. The decision was made public on Jan. 31.

LePage and other critics of the net-metering practice call net-metering unfair, because solar energy creators are paid the same for their energy as the utility companies, but don’t have the burden of distribution and transmission costs associated with providing utility services.

In his State of the State Address, LePage condemned the MPUC for its action on the bill, claiming he would “fire all the commissioners, because what they did is unconscionable.” The governor’s office had previously suggested a three-year grandfather clause for solar energy users who signed up before Sept. 1, 2016.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission was created by the Maine Legislature to oversee the electric, natural gas, water and telephone services. MPUC has three full-time commissioners: Mark Vannoy, Bruce Williamson and McLean. LePage appointed all of the current commissioners.

In 2015, LePage faced allegations from Maine democrats of interfering with the commission’s proceedings after he sent a letter urging them to renegotiate contracts with wind energy companies. Harry Lanphear, a MPUC spokesperson, said the letter did not influence the commission’s decision to renegotiate the contracts.

The commision has the final say on net-metering. A law that requires utility companies to give agricultural businesses net-metering credits gives the MPUC the power to “adjust the amount disbursed to a customer under this section in order to offset the costs to the transmission and distribution utility to meet the requirements of this section.” On cases such as this, the MPUC operates like a court.

LaBrecque is a mechanical and electrical engineer. He has been a consultant and advisor to the University of Maine’s Mechanical Engineering program, an owner of Flexware Control Technology and one of LePage’s technical advisors. In the past LaBrecque has spoken out against the feasibility of wind energy projects, including UMaine’s offshore wind energy project.

LaBrecque’s opposition to the solar law hinges on limitations in the amount of sunlight Maine receives, the bankruptcy of several renewable energy companies and the failure of RE<C, Google’s 2011 renewable energy project. As part of RE<C, Google invested in Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS), a solar technology that uses mirrors to focus the sun’s energy into a single receiver that collects it. After retiring RE<C, Google said, “We’re facing new challenges related to our solar receiver design. At this point, other institutions seem better positioned than Google to take this work to the next level.”

Carlisle J. T. McLean was appointed to the MPUC in 2015 after working as LePage’s Chief Legal Counselor since 2013. She was the Senior Natural Resource Policy Advisor from 2011 to 2013. Before working as an advisor to the governor, she was an Associate Attorney at Preti Flaherty Beliveau & Pachios legal firm.

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