By The BDN Editorial Board
Bangor Daily News editorial
Want to measure the popularity of a program? Threaten to diminish it and watch interest spike.
That’s what happened with Efficiency Maine in recent weeks. In mid-March, the Public Utilities Commission read the law that sets up a new funding system for the quasi-state agency to say that the funding stream would be only about a third as large as expected. The cause? A missing “and” in the statute that was inadvertently dropped late in the legislative process.
Shortly after the PUC vote, Efficiency Maine was flooded with applications, more than 1,600 of them.
“We got more applications in the last two weeks of March than we got in the entire prior year,” Efficiency Maine Executive Director Michael Stoddard told the BDN earlier this month.
This shows the high level of interest in projects that will increase energy efficiency. More important, it highlights the need for predictability for Efficiency Maine, which offers incentives to businesses and homeowners to undertake projects that will lead them to use less power. Decreasing demand for electricity can lower costs for all of a utility’s customers. Importantly, lower demand can prevent or delay the need for new, costly infrastructure.
This is all the more reason for lawmakers to get serious about fixing the flawed law that prompted the PUC decision. They can do that by supporting LD 1215, which would fix a drafting error in the law that determines funding for Efficiency Maine. Another bill, sponsored by House Republican Leader Ken Fredette, LD 1221, would add the missing “and,” but also create a new energy department with additional staff to oversee Efficiency Maine, adding unnecessary bureaucracy.
There is broad agreement that the omnibus energy bill, passed over a veto from Gov. Paul LePage in 2013, contains an error. The bill gave the PUC the authority to set the budget for Efficiency Maine, but lawmakers set a cap of 4 percent of electricity rates. Initial drafts of the bill said the cap would be based on “total retail electricity and transmission and distribution sales.” At some point, the first “and” was dropped. The law, as written, now says “total retail electricity transmission and distribution rates.” The loss of the “and” cuts Efficiency Maine funding by $36 million.
In a March memo to commissioners, the PUC staff called the mistake “a scrivener’s error” that should not negate the intent of lawmakers (which was to raise about $59 million for Efficiency Maine).
Ignoring this counsel, the PUC voted 2-1 that the cap be based only on transmission and distribution costs, essentially cutting Efficiency Maine funding to $23 million. It formalized that vote with an order issued earlier this month.
Fearing less money would be available for their efficiency work, contractors and others began flooding the Business Incentive Program with applications. As a result, it had to reduce the amount of reimbursements for more efficient lighting, motors, heat pumps and other work. The reduction is not only due to increased demand. The price of LED lighting has dropped in the last six months. So, it makes sense to offer a lower cash reimbursement to encourage the purchase of this more efficient lighting.
Some contractors responded angrily to the reduced rebates because they had counted on the full amount to complete their projects. They want stability.
While politicians posture about adding the missing “and,” business owners reaffirmed the program’s value by applying in big numbers to participate in its efficiency programs. They also reaffirmed the need for predictable funding. Lawmakers should make sure Efficiency Maine is equipped to consistently meet this demand.
LD 1215 offers the most straightforward way to do that.