April 30, 2013

Lawmakers weigh options for lowering energy costs

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- Warm spring weather provided a sharp contrast with the concerns of lawmakers Tuesday as they debated the best way for state government to offer Mainers some relief from high energy bills next winter.

One approach maintains and expands energy-efficiency programs, steering millions of dollars to efforts that weatherize drafty homes and help businesses use less electricity. Efficiency is the most cost-effective resource, supporters say, noting that 20 percent to 40 percent of the $5 billion Maine spend on energy each year is wasted.

Another strategy would shift some of that efficiency money to cut home heating costs directly, and it could let Mainers decide whether to use a rebate to help buy a new heating system. That's the biggest energy burden facing Mainers today, advocates say, with many residents spending more than $3,000 a year to keep warm. This plan also would use some efficiency funds to reduce electric rates marginally at large companies and exempt others from paying a small charge on electric bills that supports efficiency programs.

Neither of these ideas, proposed in two bills that had public hearings on Tuesday, is destined to move ahead unchanged. Leaders in the committee that handles energy and utility matters said they intend to take elements of each bill, along with other proposals, and craft a comprehensive plan that could provide timely, meaningful aid to residents and business owners.

Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn, said he expects his committee to consider the package at a work session set for May 7. Any compromise would have to bridge the gap between the two visions outlined Tuesday and win the support of a Democratic majority in the Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican governor who's averse to spending hikes and rate subsidies.

Mainers could save hundreds of millions of additional dollars by maintaining and beefing up energy-efficiency programs, say supporters of a bill sponsored by Sen. Jim Boyle, D-Gorham. They want to continue using money Maine receives from a regional program in which air-emission limits are sold at auction to support the efforts of Efficiency Maine Trust, which oversees the state's conservation programs.

"With limited public funds, spending money to help switch fuels instead of funding efficiency is generally the wrong priority," said Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Many businesses that have benefitted from programs operated by Efficiency Maine agree. Jim Wellehan, chief executive officer of Lamey-Wellehan Shoes, testified on behalf of 252 businesses, ranging in size from Maine Medical Center in Portland to Black Dinah Chocolatiers on Isle au Haut. Saving electricity through efficiency cost half that of buying power, he said.

Also testifying in favor of Boyle's bill was Senate President Justin Alfond, a Portland Democrat. "If we let inertia, or worse, politics, get in the way of lowering energy costs for Maine families and business owners, shame on us."

Rep. Larry Dunphy, R-North Anson challenged Alfond to explain how the plan would lower energy costs for Mainers next winter.

Alfond said it wouldn't help to take money from efficiency programs. Efficiency is a tool that lowers costs, he said.

Dunphy countered that it makes sense to take some of the money from the regional air-emissions program to cut heating costs now. But Alfond noted that a part of the LePage bill would exempt more large companies from paying an electric bill charge that supports Efficiency Maine.

"How's that going to help that family in Jackman, Maine?" he asked.

Cleveland ended the exchange by saying the committee would strike an "appropriate balance" between the two visions in the pending work session.

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