By Susan Sharon
MPBN news story
AUGUSTA, Maine — In a move being criticized by environmental groups, the Maine Public Utilities Commission today voted 2-1 to severely limit funding for energy efficiency programs.
If the ruling stands, the head of Efficiency Maine says he’ll have to slash programs to help people heat their homes and reduce electricity costs.
The move came during rulemaking implementation of a sweeping omnibus energy bill passed by the Legislature in 2013. Gov. Paul LePage vetoed the bill only to have the Legislature override his veto. At the time, House Republican Leader Kenneth Fredette said it would reduce the cost of energy in Maine by at least $200 million dollars a year, help protect jobs and allow for future economic development.
“Rulemaking needed to happen on this issue,” says Ben Tettlebaum, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation. “It was going forward as requested by Efficiency Maine Trust. But the commission took what we see as an unfortunate wrong turn.”
He says the PUC’s misinterpretation of a narrow provision of the statute goes against what the Legislature intended.
“And here, even, there was testimony from legislators who were involved in that process who explained what the intent was of this provision and the commission’s decision today goes against that intent,” Tettlebaum says.
In a letter to the commission, a bipartisan group of lawmakers on the Energy Committee clarified that their intent was to increase efficiency funding above the status quo, subject to a cap of nearly $60 million per year. The energy bill was promoted as a way to lower energy bills for homeowners, businesses and large industrial users by increasing energy efficiency.
But the PUC voted to cut energy efficiency funding to a level that would be lower than what it previously approved for fiscal year 2016.
“We would stop having heating programs or programs to save peoples’ heating levels through weatherization and high-efficiency heating systems, plus we still wouldn’t have enough to reach our electricity saving obligations,” says Michael Stoddard, the executive director of Efficiency Maine, the administrator for energy efficiency programs in Maine.
This year Efficiency Maine helped more than 7,500 homeowners install heat pumps, weatherize their homes or put in high-efficiency pellet boilers. Stoddard says those kinds of initiatives may have to be shut down. Dylan Voorhees of the Natural Resources Council of Maine calls it deeply disappointing.
“I think this is a really major decision that will set us back significantly on energy efficiency in the state of Maine,” he says. “So it’s a really important thing that we ultimately get right. And the law that the legislators passed in the omnibus bill had clear meaning so I think there’s a number of different things we’ll consider in terms of options to remedy this.”
Step one, Voorhees says, will be to file an official complaint with the Commission to reconsider their decision even though he thinks that’s unlikely. Another option is a legal appeal.
The decision comes just weeks after the PUC voted 2-1 to overturn a previous decision to approve contracts with two wind farms at low cost.
Voorhees thinks the votes show a potentially disturbing trend by LePage appointees on the Commission who may share his dislike for renewable energy. But Michael Stoddard of Efficiency Maine is more optimistic. He says there is such widespread support for the omnibus energy bill that he thinks the Legislature’s intent will prevail.