By Scott Thistle, Sun Journal
AUGUSTA, Maine â A bill aimed at lowering the costs of energy while dramatically changing the way Mainers consume it vaulted out of a key legislative committee on a near unanimous, 12-1 vote Friday.
The vote comes after months of hearings, negotiations, compromise and downright wrangling between Democrats, Republicans and Gov. Paul LePage’s office, over strategic changes to state energy policy that lawmakers hope will improve Maine’s economy by increasing efficiency while diversifying and expanding energy sources.
State Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn, the Senate chair of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, expressed gratitude for the work committee members did on the bill but also said they all knew they couldn’t give up on doing something to tackle the state’s energy issues.
“This is not the perfect bill I would have wanted,” Cleveland said committee members just prior to the vote. “But I also think this committee has done tremendous work on identifying serious issues in energy for this state. We don’t have the luxury of just saying, âIt’s too hard’s or âIt’s too difficult’s or âIt’s too political.'”
“We have to make decisions,” Cleveland said. “That’s what people sent us here to do.”
Later Cleveland called the bill “historic” and said he hoped it would gain broad support in the Legislature and LePage.
The legislation includes parts of more than 13 different bills on energy offered by Democratic and Republican lawmakers as well as LePage.
Patrick Woodcock, the director of the governor’s energy office, has been involved throughout the process and even Friday was pulling lawmakers out of the committee meeting room to finalize last-minute details.
While he congratulated the committee on doing good work Woodcock was careful Friday to not give the bill a ringing endorsement.
He said there were key provisions that LePage would be pleased with but also things LePage wanted that were not in the bill.
One key issue was the committee’s decision to leave the final decision on utility rate increases in Maine in the hands of the Legislature.
“We are encouraged that the legislation agreed with the governor’s request to retain legislative oversight of increasing electric fees,” Woodcock said. “One disappointing aspect of the legislation is it does not address wind energy policies whatsoever including the governor’s initiative to ensure that renewable energy policies are consistent for all technologies.”
LePage is pushing to remove a 100 megawatt cap in the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard. That provision in law requires most energy facilities to be smaller than 100 megawatts in generating capacity in order to qualify as renewable and be eligible for valuable credits allowed for in the law that aims to increase the power Maine gets from renewables.
Part of that provision carves out an exemption for wind power, allowing those facilities to still qualify even if they are larger than 100 megawatts. LePage has argued the law creates a vastly uneven playing field for power generators in Maine while doing nothing to lower electricity prices.
After the vote on the overall bill Friday the committee also voted to “lay over” a bill that will address the 100 megawatt cap issue. The bill would be taken up in the second half of this lawmaking session, which starts next January.
The committee will also work throughout the summer to further study the issue of renewables in Maine’s power mix.
Cleveland teamed with Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, on components of the bill that seek to improve Maine’s access to natural gas supplies.
Incorporated in the measure was legislation sponsored by Fredette that could see the state partially financing a pipeline construction in southern New England so more natural gas can make its way into the regional electric grid, which would help reduce Maine’s electricity rates further.
Fredette, the Republican leader in the House, said Friday he was well-satisfied with the Friday’s vote.
Fredette, who is not on the committee credited Cleveland and and his co-chairman Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco as well as all the other lawmakers on the committee for sticking to it and working out often difficult-to-craft compromises despite philosophical and political divides.
“The accomplishments of the bill including rate reductions, the opportunity to have the conversation about expanding natural gas pipelines into New England to lower electrical costs and to recognize the need for ongoing conservation is a classic example of a broad approach to a complex issue,” Fredette said.
That conservation includes what could be a huge boost to the Efficiency Maine Trust over the next two years for programs to help industry reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
That’s an important provision for environmentalists and members of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, according to Dylan Voorhees, the organizations Clean Energy and Global Warming Project Director.
Like Woodcock, Voorhees has been involved with the legislation throughout the process and Friday said it was now a measure his organization could stand behind.
“I’m very please it had such strong bipartisan support,” Voorhees said. “The things we’ve been asking for this session in various bills on energy efficiency and the [Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative] were incorporated into the bill. The committee did good work to address those interests.”
Voorhees said a substantial increase in energy efficiency programs in the near-term and the long-term will help put Maine on pace with other New England states, all of which except New Hampshire, spend significantly more on reducing consumption and conservation.
The legislation divides up two major energy-related funding sources to do this.
The state receives money from carbon emission allowance auctions through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI.
The federal government has paid Maine $82 million for failing to remove 550 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel that’s been stored at the defunct Maine Yankee nuclear plant since the Wiscasset facility closed in 1996.
Fifty-five percent of the Maine Yankee money goes to the Efficiency Maine Trust while the remainder or 45 percent goes directly to consumers in the form of rate reductions.
Efficiency Maine, under the newly crafted bill, would also be charged with administering a program suggested by LePage that offers homeowners rebates to help them convert to more efficient home heating systems.
But also like Woodcock, Voorhees stopped far short of a glowing endorsement of the measure. “It’s a compromise bill,” he said. “That’s the nature of comprehensive legislation, on whatever issue it is whether it’s taxation or energy policy these are challenging things and you never get everything you want. We didn’t get everything that we wanted either.”
Parts the NRCM isn’t fond of are the natural gas provisions because they expand fossil fuel consumption, Voorhees said.
“We’re not thrilled about expansion of natural gas or any fossil fuel infrastructure,” he said. “But in the context of the overall bill we are supportive of the bill.”
In addition, the bill would let the Maine Public Utilities Commission order natural gas utilities to connect their pipelines â and pay them to do it â when those additional connections could expand the availability of natural gas in the state.
At least one lawmaker on the committee said the natural gas components of the bill were essential in gaining his support.
Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, said ensuring Maine is better able to access the natural gas resources of the eastern U.S. was a “no brainer” for him.
Failing to improve the state’s access to that energy resource would be akin to deciding a 100 years ago to forego building electrical infrastructure.
“It would be like the rest of the country is electrifying and you’re deciding to keep kerosene lanterns,” Harvell said.
The bill next faces votes in both the House and the Senate before going to LePage’s desk. Woodcock said, until the governor saw all the final details, he couldn’t say whether it would gain the governor’s support or not.
Matthew Stone of the Bangor Daily News contributed to this report.