Breaking News: Maine Sets New Record

Cousins Island Power Plant

Lately, much of the United States has experienced unseasonably cold weather for the month of December.  Record lows have been recorded in many states.  While no meteorological records have been set in Maine this month, the weather has been colder and snowier here also. This early winter has us seriously concerned about energy cost and supplies in Maine.

Electricity in Maine is purchased from other states and produced locally from a variety of sources including renewables and hydro.  Increasingly, power is produced from gas-fired power plants.  When gas was plentiful and relatively cheap we enjoyed the benefits of stable electricity costs.  As gas distribution pipelines lately have been extended to many new communities and businesses, conversion to gas has been very popular. Unfortunately, this has pushed the limit of existing gas pipeline capacity in our region.

Last Saturday afternoon (December 14th), a new record of sorts was set.  The spot market price for electricity in Maine set a record at $1.00 per Kw/Hr.  The “spot market price” is the price of power that one utility company pays another for power.  The typical price is $0.02 to $0.06 per Kw/Hr, thus this peak price was nearly a staggering 1700% spike!  Most electric utilities buy power on the spot market for their daily peak power demands.  These daily peaks are biggest during the Monday through Friday work week, reflecting the combined demand of business and residences.  The typical daily peak demand duration is two to six hours, and happens twice a day, morning and late afternoon/evening.  Saturday’s record spot price wasn’t due to the unusual demand, as it was on a weekend, or the uncharacteristic wintry weather.  This record price is a frightening precursor of energy price hikes to come.  These extremely high spot market prices ultimately will be borne by ratepayers.

So then, why was the cost so high?  Ironically, efficient natural gas-powered generators were operating at extremely reduced capacities due to a shortage of gas at the Calpine power plant in Westbrook, while a few miles away the Cousins Island oil-fired power plant (that is frequently idled) ran at full capacity.  It burned expensive oil and spewed comparatively high emissions to the atmosphere.  Last year, the Cousins Island plant produced power for only one day out of the entire year.  Even more ironic is the fact that the Cousins Island plant is for sale; a buyer has been located and has likely scheduled demolition for next summer to clear the site for a residential assisted living community development.

The long-term solution will require additional gas pipeline capacity and/or imported Canadian purchased power. Both of these solutions will be contentious, political, costly, and at minimum require three years for completion.  In the meanwhile energy conservation remains our best value.

Dan Thayer, P. E., CEM