Block Island wind farm
The Block Island Wind Farm off Rhode Island is the first commercial offshore wind farm in the U.S. – but unlikely to be the last. (Photo: cementley / Flickr)

The Northeast is back.

The results of a single governor’s race in Maine and legislature flips in two New England states in November mean the region is now poised to re-emerge as the clean energy powerhouse it had started to become more than a decade ago.

A bloc of states from Maine to New Jersey are stitched together by shared power sources and an interdependent set of economies, highways, and waterways. They moved in unison in the earliest throes of clean energy policy. But in recent years, politics has peeled off some while others have surged ahead.

Now some of the smallest and most unlikely players are helping to get everyone moving together again.

“New England could be a powerful leader and one hell of a big market,” said Karl Rábago, executive director of the Pace Energy and Climate Center at Pace University. In addition to running utilities and serving as a utility regulator, Rábago has supplied expertise and advice in every New England state and New York. He and others point out those seven states together rival California economically.

The governors, he said, have an energy mandate. “There’s never been a better chance for them to coordinate to share a vision to put down some of the silly competition that’s existed in the past and retool the region for a carbon-free future.”

Democrat Janet Mills is now Maine’s governor. She takes over from Paul LePage, a Republican and climate change contrarian who among other things placed a moratorium on wind projects and restricted solar power development. The Maine legislature flipped from red to blue, too, in the 2018 election.

In New Hampshire, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu held on to his office, but the legislature and Governor’s Council unexpectedly flipped to Democratic control.

It might not sound like much – but it’s big.

The Maine change

Having Maine back in the game could be transformative – and not just because it’s well-suited to provide offshore wind power to the region.

In her inaugural address, Mills highlighted the need to address climate change. “It is time to act!” she said. “Our administration will embrace clean energy, change our modes of transportation, weatherize homes and businesses, and reach a goal of 50 percent of our electricity coming from Maine renewable resources.”

She said she’ll be putting solar panels on the governor’s residence.

Many of the state’s neighbors have looked to Maine for the grid-scale wind it’s uniquely suited to provide. But Kathleen Meil, the Maine policy advocate for the regional environmental advocacy group Acadia Center, described the wind industry as having atrophied under LePage. The state, she said, needs to restart the innovation process, re-establish expertise, and rebuild the state’s clean-energy agenda.

“It’s now time to pick our heads up and think about how we think bigger, how we accomplish more, because we have a lot of catching up to do,” she said.

“There’s a tremendous opportunity – imperative and, I think, opportunity – for Governor Mills to re-engage with the other New England governors very actively,” said Dylan Voorhees, climate and clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

And that could happen quickly.

While Maine under LePage sat on the sidelines, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, and Connecticut jumped into the newly developing offshore wind market. When Democrat Phil Murphy took over from Republican Chris Christie as New Jersey governor a year ago, that state jumped in, too.

By working together, the states have been able to drive down costs, and now nearly 10,000 megawatts of offshore wind is planned off New England and the Mid-Atlantic states.

Even the Republican administration in New Hampshire, with the tiniest of coastlines, has been looking at offshore wind, sending a delegation to Denmark late last year to see its industry. And just two days into the new year, Governor Sununu sent a letter to the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management requesting that it set up an “intergovernmental offshore renewable energy task force” for the state – an indication that it wants in on the offshore wind bonanza.

Maine had been targeted as one of the best places in the world to develop floating offshore wind, in which turbines are not anchored to the ocean floor, but that prospect all but died under LePage.

“Ten years ago, we had 10 companies that were looking at Maine to test their floating offshore wind technology. Then a couple of years later, it was down to six,” said Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association. “Now it’s down to one.”

That one is a University of Maine project, stalled out by bureaucratic maneuverings by LePage and the Maine Public Utilities Commission. Payne hopes the Mills administration will contact some of those companies once interested in Maine.

“Probably the biggest challenge that Maine has faced over the last eight years is sort of its external reputation. People could no longer count on the state standing behind its word,” Payne said. “You never knew whether the rules were going to be changed in the middle of the game. The investment climate was just too unpredictable.”

Togetherness, but not always

The northeastern states have certainly worked together before. Notably, they formed the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the nation’s first, and still only, multi-state cap-and-invest program covering power plants – now 10 years old

Late last year, nine northeastern states and the District of Columbia agreed to move to the next phase of a regional transportation de-carbonization goal. Known as the Transportation Climate Initiative, the effort, which began in 2012, will focus on coming up with an actual program along the lines of a RGGI for transportation.

Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island have collaborated to site renewable energy projects.

But the states have also gone their own ways as political wills have diverged and a can-you-top-this mentality has prevailed. New York has spearheaded a groundbreaking grid modernization called Reforming the Energy Vision. The state has also just increased its carbon-free energy goals to 100 percent by 2040. Massachusetts, under a Republican governor, has become the regional leader with an ambitious dual clean energy and economic development agenda. Connecticut, with a new Democratic governor, is looking to regain climate change leadership lost in recent years to economic difficulties.

Flashing yellow

While cooperation is the talk among the states, there are already some potential bumps.

In Maine, all three members of the Public Utilities Commission are LePage appointees, and Mills likely will have an opportunity to replace only one in another few months. So the panel could block projects.

In New Hampshire, the governor may still be inclined to veto clean energy legislation, as he has in the past – including a measure that would raise caps on solar energy deployment. The legislature, even with Democratic majorities, may still be unable to override such vetoes.

And in slaps to inter-state harmony, New Hampshire has already blocked a transmission line to get Canadian hydropower to Massachusetts. Massachusetts is now trying to get that line through Maine, but that looks to be in jeopardy as well – perhaps more so with the new Democratic administration that may be disinclined to allow transmission lines through iconic forests.

Some are suggesting the states come to an understanding that transmission will have to be sited somewhere, agree on a location and then finance it jointly. That model is also being pushed for how to bring offshore wind power to shore.

“What I hope we can do, and I think we’re capable of doing, is a bigger, more comprehensive, and realistic approach that acknowledges the urgency of the moment,” said Greg Cunningham, vice president and director of the clean energy and climate change program at the Conservation Law Foundation. “The tiny speck of light at the end of our tunnel is now broad horizon. We’re finally there.”

Jan Ellen Spiegel

Jan Ellen Spiegel is a long-time Connecticut-based journalist whose career has included radio, television, print, and digital reporting. She has won awards for her reporting on energy, environment, climate...