By Scott Thistle, Sun Journal
AUGUSTA, Maine — The cost of energy in Maine, its production and transmission, as well as whether the mix of renewable sources is balanced, will continue to be debated at the State House in 2014.
Lawmakers on the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee have spent their past few meetings honing up as they prepare to tackle more than 20 bills — many dealing with renewable energy and more specifically, wind power — that were held over from 2013. To meet legislative deadlines, the panel has to act on the bills by Jan. 24, 2014.
“We’ve got a very aggressive schedule we have to meet,” said Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn.
Cleveland, the Senate chairman of the committee, said he didn’t expect energy policy or the debate around it to be the headline-grabber it was in 2013, but he had little doubt the topic would be important.
Meetings set for Dec. 11 and Dec. 18 are designed to further prepare lawmakers as they gather information in advance of deliberations, public hearings and work sessions on the bills, Cleveland said.
He said the work is twofold: providing a general overview of the state’s renewable energy policies to the committee and honing specific bills.
“There are a lot of different pieces; it’s not as though it’s one piece of legislation,” Cleveland said. “We wanted to give the committee a good factual background about what is the current policy, how does it work, what are the goals of those policies and how do they relate to one another.”
Lowering energy costs for homeowners and businesses and ensuring the state gets the most it can from the power that’s generated here also remains a top priority for Republican Gov. Paul LePage.
Also still in the mix for LePage is policy reform that would lift a cap on the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard. Current law disallows hydropower facilities that generate more than 100 megawatts from being classified as renewables.
Lifting that cap could open the door to lower-cost electricity from Quebec, but it could also place in financial jeopardy in-state generation, including some that comes from co-generation facilities at Maine paper mills.
Patrick Woodcock, director of the governor’s Energy Office, said he was confident a productive dialogue with the Legislature would continue, but he anticipated only “incremental” movement on energy policy in 2014.
Woodcock said there’s little doubt that some of the political and philosophical “chasms” remain between Democrats and Republicans on energy policy. Still, he said, often-overlooked is how collaboratively LePage’s administration and Democrats in the Legislature have worked to reach compromise and solutions.
Woodcock said it’s important to keep in mind they are working on some of the “hardest policy questions that center around some of the most divisive issues” in state politics.
Lawmakers, if not in the truncated “short session” of 2014, will be dealing with energy issues for decades to come.
Determining what role Maine will play in providing renewable energy to the more prosperous and populous southern New England and who will ultimately pay to expand the power-line infrastructure needed to transport that energy south, also will be among those issues.
“We are really in an outlier position,” Woodcock said, noting that Maine produces more renewable energy than it consumes, while renewable energy policies in Massachusetts and Connecticut are driving the demand for development of new sources here.
“And at this point, the supply is not meeting the demand,” he said.
At the heart of the discussion should be the question of how the state gets the most benefit for Maine people out of the resources it has available. That includes refocusing the policy debate on reducing costs, diversifying production and maximizing benefits for ratepayers.
“If we took all the funding we could provide for our renewable policies and asked ourselves, ‘Are we spending it in the most effective way?’— I think the answer is no,” Woodcock told lawmakers on the Energy Committee last week.
He said LePage wants a state energy policy that ultimately “maximizes” the benefits for the people of Maine. Woodcock said the governor has voiced frustration over the state’s pace in achieving some of its goals, including the effort to improve efficiency and conservation.
LePage has said, “‘We are moving kind of like a turtle, rather than a hare,’” Woodcock told the committee last week.
Cleveland said he and other Democrats working on energy policy agree with LePage on several levels.
He said the committee’s second meeting in December would be a review of state policy on commercial-sized wind power projects and a review of the goals and policies established in the Wind Energy Act of 2008
Beyond lifting the 100-megawatt cap for hydropower, the LePage administration is interested in changing the 2008 law, especially around the issue of allowing more public input on proposed wind farm developments in the state’s unorganized territories, Woodcock said.