May 15, 2013

LePage not happy with bipartisan energy bill

The governor wants more money for homeowners switching heating systems.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA – A proposal meant to lower energy costs for Mainers beginning this winter doesn't go far enough in cutting heating bills to satisfy Gov. Paul LePage, his energy director said Tuesday, and doesn't address some of the governor's key concerns about wind power and hydroelectricity from Canada.

"There are some priorities that if, unaddressed, really do a disservice to moving the state's energy policy forward," said Patrick Woodcock.

Woodcock's comments followed the first day of work by the Legislature's Energy, Technology and Utilities Committee on a highly anticipated bipartisan compromise on energy policy.

The bill is the product of promises by politicians to do something meaningful this year to lower the state's above-average heating and electricity costs. It incorporates ideas from at least nine separate bills that already have had public hearings, including proposals introduced on behalf of LePage and Democratic leaders.

At issue is the best way for Maine to use government money to advance cost-saving goals.

The plan includes beefing up funds that Efficiency Maine uses for electricity conservation programs, from $28 million over a two-year period to $44 million. The extra money would come from an $81.7 million settlement between the federal government and the utilities that owned the now-closed Maine Yankee nuclear power plant.

To help homeowners switch to more affordable heating systems, Efficiency Maine would get $6.6 million over two years from the regional auction on air-emission limits, known as RGGI. That's one-third of the money Maine gets from RGGI.

LePage wants to shift almost all of the RGGI money that now goes to electricity efficiency into heating alternatives, Woodcock noted. That could provide some relief in a state where seven of 10 homes are heated with oil and many residents spend $3,000 a year to keep warm.

LePage also objects to a proposal in the bill to repeal the  0.145 cents-per-kilowatt-hour charge that Mainers pay on their electricity bills to fund efficiency programs. Instead, the Public Utilities Commission would set the so-called system benefits charge, based on the amount of cost-effective, achievable conservation measures it can identify. 

Democrats and their allies, including environmental groups and various small businesses, generally favor that approach. It could steer millions of dollars to helping homes and businesses use less electricity.

Efficiency is the most cost-effective resource, they say, noting that 20 percent to 40 percent of the $5 billion that Mainers spend on energy each year is wasted.

LePage also is displeased that the bill ignores a study by Woodcock's office meant to reconsider the state's ambitious wind energy goals and shift the priority to lowering electricity rates.

Wind power policy is too big an issue to tackle in the bill, said John Cleveland, D-Auburn, Senate chair of the committee. He's proposing a separate study to be done this summer and fall for the next legislative session.

Another sticking point for LePage is a lack of any action to amend a law that dictates which kinds of power projects can qualify as renewable energy. LePage and other Republicans have sought unsuccessfully to remove a 100-megawatt "cap" on generator output, which they say would open the market to affordable Canadian hydropower.

Democrats and renewable-energy companies say that would hurt Maine's homegrown industry and do nothing to lower electricity rates. The issue is being addressed in a separate bill and the committee's House chair, Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, said it remains active.

Hobbins said that he and Cleveland and the Republican leaders on the committee had a productive meeting with LePage on Monday about energy policy. Hobbins expressed hope that the work the committee will do on the bill in the next few days will win the governor's support.

"This bill goes a long way to try to build consensus with the governor," Hobbins said.

The compromise bill appears to be winning support from a key Republican on the committee, Rep. Larry Dunphy, R-Embden.

"I don't think everyone is going to get everything they want, but it's all livable," he said. "It's a bipartisan bill."

Hobbins said he wants the panel to vote on the bill and send it to the full Legislature early next week.

Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

tturkel@mainetoday.com

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