AUGUSTA – Maine is preparing to spend $180 million over the next three years on a far-reaching plan to help residents and businesses use less energy.

The plan would greatly expand efficiency programs, in line with meeting a 20-year legislative goal of weatherizing every home and half of the businesses in the state. That law also aims to cut consumption of electricity and natural gas by nearly one-third over the next decade, and use of heating oil by 20 percent. Officials are calling it the most ambitious energy-saving goal in the nation.

The three-year plan is the first working document of a new, independent agency called Efficiency Maine Trust. The trust was formed to consolidate the state’s efforts to reduce its dependence on petroleum fuels.

Members of the Legislature’s Utilities and Energy Committee were given a special presentation on the 96-page plan Monday. But as lawmakers prepare to adjourn for the year, it remains to be seen whether state government can muster the resources and political will to fund the plan over time.

Also unknown is to what degree Mainers will embrace the government incentives to beef up the insulation in their homes, change out wasteful light bulbs, upgrade power-hungry appliances and take scores of other steps envisioned by the plan.

One committee member had this advice: Make sure Mainers can see right away how the plan is saving them energy and money, or risk losing public support.

Efficiency Maine Trust was created by a law signed last year by Gov. John Baldacci. Maine is more dependent than any other state on heating oil, the trust says, at a cost of nearly $1 billion a year.

Much of the plan’s money would come initially from federal stimulus funds. The one-time government cash would be supplemented by a small charge that electricity customers already pay on their bills. That surcharge now generates roughly $14 million a year.

To expand the program after the first year, the plan proposes a modest increase in the power bill surcharge. It also would need a new source of revenue to generate another $14 million a year, to help middle-income residents who heat with oil make their homes more efficient.

That issue will be studied by the trust this summer. The money could come from a charge on each gallon of heating oil, similar to the levy on electricity bills.

Any new ideas to raise the money needed to expand and sustain programs will need lawmakers’ approval.

Taken together, the plan’s actions would save consumers an estimated $810 million over the three years. They would cost each Maine resident $48 a year, and pay back $4 for every dollar invested, said Michael Stoddard, a Portland attorney who last month was named the trust’s first executive director.

In his presentation of the plan, Stoddard said conservation is the most cost-effective way of spending energy dollars. But there are various ways to spend conservation dollars, and Rep. Ken Fletcher, R-Winslow, questioned why more money was earmarked for weatherizing low-income residents’ homes than for upgrading lighting and appliances, which saves more energy at a lower cost.

Stoddard said federal stimulus money is available now for weatherization, which keeps contractors working. And while lighting retrofit money comes from the electricity bill surcharge, Maine has lacked incentives to help oil heat customers weatherize their homes.

“It’s a balancing act,” Stoddard said.

But if the next Legislature is going to ask utility customers for a rate hike, Fletcher said, the trust had better make sure people understand what they’re paying for.

“If you do nothing else in the next six months, you should concentrate on meaningful and measurable results,” Fletcher said.

After the presentation, Stoddard said conservation and efficiency measures under way now with federal stimulus funds are just starting to produce results that people can see.

It’s too early to know how energy companies will respond to any plans to raise their rates.

It’s likely, though, that Central Maine Power Co. will remain neutral on the issue. A condition of the merger of its parent company and Iberdrola, the Spanish utility, bars CMP from opposing surcharge hikes for a period of time.

Jamie Py, executive director of the Maine Energy Marketers Association, said oil dealers support the plan’s efficiency goals, but his board hasn’t taken an official position yet on a surcharge. He figures customers would have to pay an extra 2 cents per gallon or so to raise $14 million a year.

The wood pellet industry would benefit from the plan, said William Bell, executive director of the Maine Pellet Fuels Association, because it encourages switching to renewable fuels.

“Without both conservation and fuel-switching, the plan’s goals cannot be met,” Bell said.

Specifics of the plan are likely to change as the Efficiency Maine Trust gets up and running.

 

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: [email protected]