by Patty B. Wight
MPBN news story
It’s being touted as an unprecedented solution to one of Maine’s most pressing problems: The House and Senate today passed a bipartisan bill aimed at cutting energy costs. The support comes in spite of an expected veto by Gov. Paul LePage, who is unhappy with two components of the bill. Patty Wight reports.
The energy bill is essentially a stew of 12 individual bills – including one by Gov. Paul LePage – that tweaks them to the palates of both Democrats and Republicans. The result, says, Democratic Rep. Sara Gideon, is an overall theme that will cut energy costs. “The best way to save on energy costs is to simply use less energy,” Gideon says.
Gideon, who serves on the Energy, Utilities, and Technology Committee, says the bill will generate $365 million in savings through electricity conservation. It provides extra funding for efficiency programs. It seeks to lower greenhouse gas emissions in a cap-and-trade program, and will apply funds generated from the change to lower home heating costs. It increases the infrastructure for natural gas and allows incentives for Mainers to switch.
Republican Rep. Ken Fredette says the bill is good for residents and businesses. “We will make Maine and New England competitive nationally, so we can not only bring business to Maine, but save those big industrial businesses who are already here and threatened by high energy costs,” he says. “That’s a big deal.”
The bill also amends the Public Utilities Commission’s charter to make minimizing the cost of energy a priority. That may not sound that surprising, but it’s the first time the charter has been amended in 100 years. Democratic Rep. Barry Hobbins says all of the changes under the bill will undo decades of energy cost inequity in Maine.
“Too often, we were told that Maine is just a small state in one corner of the country, and there’s nothing that we men and women in the Legislature can do to reverse that tide,” he says.
The bill passed by an overwhelming 131 to 7 in the House. Hours later it returned to the Senate, which had given the bill initial approval on Thursday.
But Gov. LePage opposes the bill, and two components he’s concerned with were the subject of debate Friday. One allows the PUC, instead of the Legislature, to determine what to charge ratepayers in their monthly electricity bills for efficiency programs. Patrick Woodcock is Gov. LePage’s energy director.
“Our principle is always going to be that fee increases should be controlled by elected officials,” he says. “That’s something that is non-negotiable.” Proponents of the energy bill counter that there are safeguards for the Legislature to intervene if necessary.
Another source of contention in the bill is the lack of a provision that would require the PUC to reconsider a contract for floating turbines. The PUC gave Norwegian company Statoil initial approval to install turbines off the Maine coast. It’s a 20-year contract supported by Maine taxpayers. Woodcock says LePage wants the PUC to consider awarding the contract to the University of Maine, which just launched a wind turbine prototype in May.
“In light of all the progress they’ve made, can we do a fair evaluation of the technologies? Let’s let them compete,” he says. “Let’s see which one makes the most sense for Maine’s offshore wind industry future.”
Proponents say the energy bill allows the PUC to consider a second round of applications, but Woodcock says it puts the University of Maine in second place. He says the energy bill should be a uniting force.
But it appears it already is. The Senate passed the bill for enactment 29 to 6. Woodcock says LePage still plans to veto. But if lawmakers don’t sway in their votes, there will be enough to override that veto.