LITCHFIELD — Talk about a win-win-win for Maine: greater energy independence, lower energy bills and nearly 500 new jobs.

On Wednesday, Gov. John Baldacci announced that Maine had been awarded a $30 million federal grant to help kick start Maine’s newly enacted Property Assessed Clean Energy Act. The PACE program helps property owners finance energy efficiency investments that will lower their energy bills.

The $30 million federal grant will provide the initial capital for this revolving loan program, which can then be lent to Maine property owners.

But before we can tap into this $30 million in stimulus funding, the PACE lending program requires one more key step by our local governments. Our cities and towns must establish lending programs that meet the PACE standards.

It comes as no surprise that we in Maine spend more on energy for heating and lighting our homes than almost any other state. This is due, in large part, to our unique combination of cold winters, older homes and high energy costs. We pay more than twice as much per kilowatt-hour for electricity as people do in North Dakota, the state with the cheapest electricity.

The PACE Act promises to ease the burden of our energy bills. Cost-effective home improvements could lower a typical Mainer’s energy bill by 25 percent, but too often, we cannot afford the upfront investment necessary to pay for these improvements. This is where the PACE lending program steps in to help Maine property owners.

The program allows property owners to borrow up to $15,000 for energy improvements such as home weatherization or solar panels, as long as the improvements save more money than they cost.

Thus, property owners who choose to borrow under the PACE program will start saving money the same day they install the improvements since their annual energy savings are greater than their annual loan payments.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission estimates that, on average, homeowners taking advantage of the PACE lending program will lower their home’s utility bills by $650 per year, resulting in a lifetime of savings.

A key advantage of the PACE lending program is how it is repaid – through a temporary increase in property taxes for the home receiving the improvements. Once the loan is repaid, the property tax increase is removed.

The PACE loan stays with the property, not the property owner.

For example if you use a five-year PACE loan to lower your heating bills by weatherizing your house, and then sell your house two years later, the buyer of your home will become responsible for repaying the PACE loan (and, of course, the buyer will reap the benefits of the home’s lower heating bills).

Not only will the PACE loan program help homeowners lower their energy bills, it will also create nearly 500 jobs for the workers who install these home improvements.

The program provides a shot in the arm for Maine communities where, today, nearly one in every 12 workers is unemployed. Many of these unemployed workers are the same construction, trades and home improvement workers who will be employed to install the property improvements funded by the PACE program.

Before Maine homeowners and workers can take advantage of this low-cost loan program, each local government needs to establish a lending program that meets the PACE standards.

Local government officials can either develop their own PACE program or choose to join the Maine Home Performance Fund administered by the Efficiency Maine Trust (www.efficiencymainetrust.org).

The Maine Home Performance Fund is a statewide PACE loan program that allows municipalities to quickly participate in these new lending programs.

Soon, it will be easier for Maine property owners to lower energy bills, improve the Maine environment and increase Maine’s energy independence.

Encourage your mayor and city council to get moving today to establish a PACE lending program.