by Andy O’Brien
Not all environmental groups opposed the omnibus energy bill. Support from the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM) hinged on increasing funding for the Efficiency Maine Trust and finalizing an agreement for Maine’s continued participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a regional cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gases.
“It is hard to overstate the importance of this bill for increasing energy efficiency and reducing pollution from energy consumption,” said NRCM lobbyist Dylan Voorhees in a statement. “It will increase investment in efficiency, take the politics out of decision-making on future efficiency investments, and save hundreds of millions of dollars. And the legislation will lower the global warming pollution cap under RGGI by 45%, a huge step forward that strengthens this initiative and keeps Maine leading the nation in cleaning up power plants.”
The Efficiency Maine Trust – a public program funded through charges to electric ratepayers, revenue from RGGI carbon emission allowance auctions, and some federal money – provides energy-saving programs to residents and businesses. That includes cash incentives and rebates, free energy audits, low-cost loans and educational training. According to Efficiency Maine, efficiency programs have saved $400 million a year in energy costs since 2002.
The omnibus energy bill provides additional funding to the program by using $3 million from RGGI , as well as 55 percent of the $82 million awarded to Maine from the federal government for its failure to remove 550 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel stored at the defunct Maine Yankee nuclear plant in Wiscasset. The remainder of the settlement money is to go directly to consumers in the form of rate reductions. Under the legislation Efficiency Maine is required to use about $4 million a year for programs to reduce heating costs, such as home weatherization and incentives to purchase high-efficiency heating systems. It’s estimated the program could benefit up to 5,000 homeowners per year, according to Efficiency Maine Director Michael Stoddard. The bill also extends a rebate program on the purchase of heat pumps. “For the first time we will have a sustained funding stream to help reduce heating oil use and costs to the state,” said Stoddard.
Doug Baston, owner of North Atlantic Energy Advisors and board member of Environment Northeast, has been a critic of Maine’s lack of investment in energy efficiency programs in recent years, but he said the legislation finally puts the state in line with the rest of the country.
The new law takes the responsibility of overseeing Efficiency Maine from the Legislature and places it under the jurisdiction of the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), which supporters of the provision say will evaluate efficiency programs based on fact rather than political whims.
According to Baston, from 2010 to 2011, the trust’s benefit-to-cost ratio was 2.58, meaning that every dollar spent generated 2.58 in lifetime economic benefits. However, Governor LePage has criticized Efficiency Maine, once calling conservation programs “another word for Ponzi scheme.”
“In the long term, the importance of having the Trust report to a regulator like the PUC, which has the technical expertise to oversee what is a utility function, is at least as important as the budget increase,” said Baston.
Baston said, in the past, the citizen legislature, which lacks the expertise of professionals in the PUC, have too often injected politics into efficiency policy, but the PUC will operate in “a more stable and businesslike fashion.”