The measure addresses transmission costs and efforts to step up efficiency and fight global warming.
by Dylan Voorhees and Beth A. Nagusky
You may find it surprising that we agree with Gov. LePage that Maine’s energy costs are significantly higher than they need to be. For more than a decade, Maine has underinvested in our cheapest form of energy. Instead of ensuring that Maine people and businesses benefit from all energy-efficiency improvements that save money as compared with energy supplies, we have been wasting many of our energy dollars and sending them out of the state’s economy and often overseas.
Replacing lighting, appliances and equipment with those that use less electricity and fuel, along with weatherizing our homes, is the fastest, cheapest and cleanest way to reduce energy costs.
The “omnibus” energy bill that passed the Legislature’s Energy Committee by a 12-1 vote is now before the full Legislature. The bill would ensure Maine’s energy-efficiency investment levels are based on the economics of saving ratepayers as much money as possible. The bill would repeal the current arbitrary cap on efficiency and require the Efficiency Maine Trust to invest in any efficiency that results in net bill savings for Maine people and businesses.
The Maine Public Utilities Commission would remain in charge of overseeing the trust, through a regulatory proceeding that is divorced from politics. The bill uses a portion of upcoming settlement funds relating to Maine Yankee to increase investments in efficiency directly over the next two years.
Maine has been falling behind many other states on energy efficiency. This bill would help remedy that.
The energy bill makes several other important improvements to Maine energy policy. It reforms and updates the Northeast’s highly successful Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative program, which limits global warming pollution from power plants. These reforms, already agreed to by the states, would lower the global warming pollution limit by 45 percent.
The energy bill would also direct one-third of RGGI revenues to help reduce high heating bills by improving the efficiency of homes and heating systems. Currently there is no stable source of funding to help Maine families lower heating costs, although the typical home spends nearly half of its energy budget on heat. Efficiency Maine estimates that this funding could help roughly 5,000 homes lower heating bills each year.
The bill establishes an electricity transmission policy that would require an independent analysis of less expensive ways to meet grid reliability needs when a transmission project is proposed. Transmission charges have increased nearly 70 percent over the last five years â the fastest-growing component of our electric rates.
The approximately $5 billion in transmission construction in New England over the last decade has roughly quadrupled residential average transmission rates. Another $6 billion in investment is planned through 2017. Under the new policy, non-transmission alternatives such as energy efficiency, demand response and distributed generators would be given preference if they could be proven to meet the need at a lower cost to Maine ratepayers.
In addition to these clean energy advances, the bill would give Maine’s PUC authority to contract for pipeline capacity to increase the flow of natural gas into New England, most likely by building a new gas pipeline through Massachusetts.
Although our groups did not support this provision when it was first printed, there have been important improvements in the omnibus version, including limits on the size of a contract, requirement for a full hearing process at the PUC and a five-year sunset on this authority. This provision would help lower electricity prices for regional ratepayers by reducing congestion on gas pipelines.
Before the commission can proceed, however, it must pursue other avenues to reduce natural gas prices, including reforms to utilize existing pipelines more efficiently or by encouraging the private sector to finance a pipeline.
Only if the PUC rules out those approaches can the commission, after consultation with the Public Advocate and Governor’s Energy Office, propose a contract to purchase up to 15 to 20 percent of a pipeline’s capacity. The commission must find the contract to be in the public interest.
While we believe that Maine’s highest energy priorities should be energy efficiency and renewable energy, conversion by electric power plants from oil and coal to natural gas is one of the reasons that New England has a cleaner energy mix than the rest of the country.
When we look at the total energy bill, our groups believe it significantly advances Maine’s energy policy â by increasing investment in efficiency as our cleanest and lowest-cost energy source for homes and businesses, by implementing improvements to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and by recognizing lower-cost options to expensive new transmission lines. We are urging the Legislature to vote “yes.”
â Special to the Press Herald
ABOUT THE AUTHORS Beth A. Nagusky is Maine director of ENE (Environment Northeast). Dylan Voorhees is clean energy director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.