March 21, 2012

Maine: Governor proposes energy package

Gov. Paul LePage has delivered his promised energy plan for Maine, in the form of four bills he wants approved before the session ends next month. As Mal Leary reports, the governor is touting the package as a way to lower the cost of power.

LePage has said repeatedly that he believes consumers in Maine, both commercial and residential users, are paying too much for their electricity. Since last fall he has been saying he would introduce a package of bills to address that issue this session. One would change the definition of a "renewable energy source" under state law.

"If you have hydroelectricity at 100 megawatts or less, it's green energy, but if you have hydro above 100 megawatts, it's no longer green," LePage says. "Hydroelectricity's probably the greenest, most renewable energy there is, but the reason they're against large hydroelectricity is because it comes cheap from Canada."

The legislation would allow power purchased from Canada to qualify under the state renewable portfolio standard that requires 35 percent of the electricity used in the state to come from renewable sources. The governor expects his proposal will face opposition from those pushing other renewable sources that he says are more expensive. "And all these fat cats, the special interests, they'll be up there testifying against it," he predicts.

Rep. Stacey Fitts is a Pittsfield Republican who co-chairs the Legislature's Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee. He says the 100-megawatt cap was put in place to protect Maine-based generators from unfair competition with Canadian hydro power from government-owned utilities.

"It's not an indictment on large hydro or anything else," Fitts says. "It's just if Maine ratepayers are going to be asked to pay a premium in any way, shape or form, it should be for Maine-based plants."

Ken Fletcher, the governor's chief energy advisor, says he cannot predict the savings that might come from changing the law, but suggests that the only way to find out is to open the possibility of negotiating lower prices with Canadian producers.

"I'm not going to promise that we're going to save $4 million, or $10 million, because it's all predicated on the fact that if that opportunity presents itself, it is positioned in a way that we can see that it is a measurable and meaningful cost reduction to Maine ratepayers," Fletcher says. "But it's like having to, versus not having the potential to."

Sen. Phil Bartlett, a Gorham democrat on the Energy Committee, says that improving efficiency and reducing the overall use of energy is the way to immediately address the high energy bills of Mainers struggling to heat their homes.

"The most important thing we can do to lower energy costs is to invest in energy efficiency," Bartlett says. "We're never going to be--or at least not in the near term--a low-cost energy state. We don't have coal here, we don't have natural gas in the ground. So we need to figure out how to lower costs for Maine businesses today and we can do it very cheaply through energy efficiency."

Fletcher believes one of the governor's bills addresses that concern. It would expand programs offered by the Efficiency Maine Trust, including a new rebate to help consumers buy alternative energy systems to heat their homes.

"If you look at, for example, the cost of wood pellets versus the cost of heating oil, you know there's a significant savings there, and if this causes people to say, 'You know what, I'm going to take advantage of the rebate and I'm going to go out and buy the pellet stove I've been thinking of, as one example, then that is going to save them money," Fletcher says.

The other two bills address oversight and transparency of energy policies. One would require the Public Utilities Commission and the Public Advocate to do so-called "zero-based budgeting," rather than building a budget based on the previous year's experience. Those offices would now have to justify every expenditure for the coming year. They would also be required to show all of the fees and charges on electric bills so consumers can see the detailed cost breakdown.

Another bill would shortent he name of the Governor's Office of Energy Independence and Security to simply the "Governor's Energy Office."


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