Texas voters gave a green light to incentives to build new natural gas-powered electricity plants, while voters in Maine shot down a proposal to create a company that would have purchased or acquired by eminent domain the state's privately-owned utilities.
Maine voters also passed an election reform measure to stop foreign influence over state ballot measures, which was an issue that arose from opposition to a transmission line.
The vote for more natural gas-power plants in Texas received 65% support from voters in the state. Known as Proposition 7, the measure creates the Texas Energy Fund, which is designed to address reliability concerns on the Lone Star State’s grid. Proposition 7 was introduced by the Texas legislature this year, and since it amends the state constitution, it required voter approval.
The $5 billion fund will sponsor low-interest loans for the development of new power plants, expansion of broadband access, new state parks and water infrastructure. To qualify, the power plants must be capable of producing more than 100 megawatts, which is approximately enough for approximately 20,000 homes.
The loans are largely aimed at natural gas-fired power plants, which the U.S. Energy Information Administration says new plants are expected to add 8.6 gigawatts in 2023 to the national total. This year these same types of plants are relied upon for almost 40% of U.S. power needs.
In order to be eligible for the low-interest loans in Texas, the plants must be fully "dispatchable," meaning they can provide electricity continuously and not just when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. This means wind and solar developments are excluded from tapping into the fund, and though battery facilities are considered dispatchable, they are also specifically excluded from loan eligibility.
The fund will also provide bonus payments to plants that come online by 2029, and it provides an allocation for repairing existing plants.
David Blackmon, a longtime energy analyst and writer, as well as a Texas resident, told Just The News that the fund is an attempt to address reliability problems on the Texas grid, which is operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). “The ERCOT grid is woefully short of dispatchable thermal energy,” Blackmon said.
Winter Storm Uri in 2021, which resulted in widespread blackouts in Texas, demonstrated the reliability problems of the state’s grid, and it continues to be a problem for the state today. “Unfortunately, the generating companies for the past decade have refused to build natural gas capacity, and our grid is really overwhelmed with renewable, intermittent generation,” Blackmon said.
He added that it’s a problem that can’t be entirely blamed on ERCOT, as the council is attempting to comply with federal regulations that are aimed at eliminating carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. electricity sector, and Texas’ portfolio standards that require a certain amount of renewable energy on the grid.
“ERCOT is doing the best it can with the federal regulations that have been forced upon it, and the portfolio standards that should have been repealed a decade ago,” Blackmon said.
Maine Question 3
Maine voters were asked to weigh in on a proposal that would create the Pine Tree Power Company, an electric transmission and distribution utility governed by an elected board, and would allow the company to purchase and acquire all investor-owned transmission and distribution utilities in Maine.
Opponents of Question 3 said that the new Pine Tree Power Company would have the ability to acquire utilities by the use of eminent domain. Although no mention of eminent domain was in the proposition, utility companies in Maine have the right to exercise that power under already existing law.
Nearly 70% of Maine voters said no to the proposal. “Power belongs in the hands of the people, not greedy corporations,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said in a statement released this summer endorsing the measure.
Currently Maine’s electricity service comes from two investor-owned utility companies, according to the Portland Press Herald.
While progressive groups like the Sierra Club supported the public takeover of the companies, the Portland Press-Herald reported that taking on the two utility companies and their debt would have cost around $10 billion. As a result, ratepayers would have to cover a $500 million annual debt service payment, which divided the state on the issue.
The unions that represent workers of the existing utility companies were opposed to the proposal, as was the Maine Chamber of Commerce. “This proposal is bad for businesses, bad for workers and bad for anyone who has to pay an electric bill. It’s simply too expensive for Maine,” said Dana Connors, president of the chamber, in a statement.
Maine Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, also opposed the measure. She vetoed a bill in 2021 that would have created the Pine Tree Power Company, which, according to Reason, led to advocates to pursue the ballot initiative. "In reality, I just don't see how it will improve our utilities or the services they provide. In fact, I fear it might just make things worse,” Mills said in a statement to voters.
Meredith Angwin, a chemist and author of “Shorting The Grid,” told Just The News that, if the measure would have passed, the Pine Tree Power Company would have still had limited options with regard to how it ran the state’s grid. The Pine Tree Power Company would have operated within a Regional Transmission Organization (RTO), which is an electric power transmission system operator that coordinates, controls, and monitors a multi-state electric grid. Many things would have been outside the Pine Tree Power Company’s control, Angwin said, including the wholesale cost of electricity on the grid.
“I don't think it would have made very much difference if Q3 passed,” Angwin said.
Maine Question 2
Question 2, as the ballot measure was called, arose from a legal dispute over the construction of a power transmission line that apparently found a loophole by which foreign companies could legally spend money influencing elections in the state, mostly through advertising.
Maine election law and the Federal Election Campaign Act, Maine Public Radio discovered, prohibit foreign nationals from contributing to candidate campaigns, but state and federal law are silent on the question of foreign electioneering in state referendums.
Question 2 proposed "prohibiting foreign governments, or entities with at least 5% foreign government ownership or control, from spending money to influence ballot measures or candidate elections."
86% of Maine voters supported its passage, effectively closing that loophole.
In 2019, according to Maine Public Radio, opponents of the transmission line launched a referendum campaign to stop the project. As the referendum's proponents were gathering signatures to put the question on the Maine ballot, Hydro-Quebec, a Canadian hydroelectric power company that was generating the electricity the power line would carry, spent $22 million trying to defeat the referendum, according to the Associated Press.
The ballot measures in Texas and Maine appear to show that, when it comes to energy, voters place a value on cost, reliability, and foreign participation in energy policy.