Will Maine electric customers pay an additional $5 to $7.50 or so on their monthly bills to support renewable energy development?

The answer will become clearer this fall, when the Maine Public Utilities Commission begins offering a new “green power” option for residents and small businesses.

To make any real difference, the program will have to overcome obstacles that blunted the impact of Maine’s most-prominent green power efforts. Only 2,500 customers — less than one-half of 1 percent — were signed up at any one time for the wind and hydro options offered by the former Maine Renewable Energy LLC.

Organizers blame the poor track record on the lack of a marketing budget, complex enrollment requirements and residents who expressed support for renewable energy, but didn’t back it up with their money. Green power typically costs a penny or two more per kilowatt hour than the standard-offer electricity supply that customers receive by default. It can add $5 to $7.50 to an average monthly bill of $72.

Although the new green power program is rooted in a law that was passed nearly two years ago, it’s being cited as a rationale by Gov. Paul LePage to cap the state’s current renewable power law. The approach reflects an evolving philosophical shift in state government and the priorities of LePage, who wants to move support for renewable energy from all electric customers to individuals who choose to pay for it.

Debate over this market-based approach will resume Wednesday during a work session on the renewables law that’s being held in the legislative committee handling energy issues.

Maine’s first green power initiative was launched soon after the state’s electric industry was restructured in 2000. The idea is that some customers are willing to pay a bit more for energy that doesn’t come from fossil fuels and contributes less to pollution and climate change.

In 2003, a coalition of environmental groups joined with state government in a promotional effort to convert 5 percent of the state’s electric market to green power by 2008. They didn’t come close.

Most recently, a partnership between Maine Renewable Energy and Maine Interfaith Power & Light was offering three green power options.

One came from a hydro dam on the Androscoggin River and carried a 1 cent/kwh premium over the standard offer rate. Another came from wind farms in the Midwest and carried a 2 cent/kwh premium. The third was a mix of both, and added 1.5 cents.

But interest in the products was muted. There was no money to advertise the program, and customers who learned of it faced hurdles to join, according to Rich Silkman, a partner at Competitive Energy Services in Portland, the retail power broker that handled the account. The program wasn’t publicized in utility bill mailings, and customers had to know their account numbers to sign up.

“You have to market it,” he said. “You have to make it easy to sign up and put it in front of people on a regular basis.”

Another hurdle appeared to be translating good intentions into action. Surveys showed that 10 percent of customers were willing to pay between 10 and 20 percent more for green power, Silkman said. But it’s possible, he suggested, that those conclusions are just wrong.

Harry Brown is more optimistic. The executive director of Maine Interfaith Power & Light, Brown said the nonprofit organization relied largely on word of mouth to publicize the options. He believes a consistent, well-marketed program that makes it easy to enroll will attract thousands of new customers.

“I think you’re going to see exponential growth,” he said.

The new program is aimed at creating a green alternative to Maine’s standard offer. The PUC put out requests for proposals last year with specific details on pricing and the mix of renewable resources.

The agency has received multiple bids and plans to pick a provider next month. The information is confidential for now. There’s no way of knowing what type of generators will be used or where they’re located. It’s possible they could include wind farms in Maine, for instance, or projects in other states.

The winning provider will work with the PUC and Maine’s utilities to develop ways to let customers know what’s available, and make it easy for them to sign up. The state has set aside $100,000, gleaned from ratepayers, to help market the program.

LePage sees the green power option as an alternative to a current state law that requires the state to get 10 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2017, raising it 1 percent a year until then. All ratepayers now contribute to the added cost of buying that power.

But the optional, voluntary program could get Maine to the same place, according to Ken Fletcher, who heads the governor’s energy office. He figures Mainers could encourage a 1 percent increase in renewable generation if roughly 30,000 customers signed up for green power.

His assumption also includes the penny or so premium that new, renewable projects command in New England’s wholesale electric market.

“We may find that the market can solve the problem,” Fletcher said. “We should only require a mandate when there’s no other choice.”

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

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