PORTLAND — A renewable energy ballot initiative that supporters say can gradually lower electric rates while reducing Maine’s dependence on imported fuel is actually “the single, largest job killer” Maine has faced in years and will make rates rise, Gov. Paul LePage told a gathering of the state’s real estate industry today.

If the measure gets on the ballot this November and wins voter approval, he said, it will force people and businesses to leave for places with lower energy costs.

“This will destroy the state of Maine,” he said, appealing to the crowd to fight the initiative.
LePage made his remarks at the opening address of the 2010 Maine Real Estate & Development Association’s annual forecast conference. The event drew a record turnout of 650 business and industry professionals, who gave the governor a standing ovation when he was introduced.

LePage’s comments escalated his ongoing attack on a proposal by a coalition called Maine Citizens for Clean Energy. The group, which includes environmental activists and windpower developers, is collecting signatures for a ballot initiative aimed at requiring 20 percent of Maine’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2020, and to require further investments in energy efficiency.

LePage has called the proposal a scam that benefits a few wealthy people. He told the group that the plan would add $40 to $80 million a year to Maine’s electric costs, which he said already are the 12th highest in the nation.

“It’s a loss for the state of Maine, and I urge you all to fight it,” he said.

But advocates of the initiative said after his remarks that the governor is misinformed.

They cited a draft report released last week by the Public Utilities Commission and done at the request of the Legislature. That independent study shows Maine’s renewable energy policies, coupled with similar power-purchase requirements elsewhere in New England, could create 11,700 new jobs in Maine, building wind and other renewable-energy projects. This work also could increase the state’s Gross Domestic Product by 2 percent, or more than $1 billion, according to London Economic International LLC of Boston.

“I’m puzzled why he thinks this is a job killer,” said Beth Nagusky, Maine director of Environment Northeast. “This is a job creator.”

During his talk, LePage held up the state’s electric rates as a threat to business retention and expansion. He quoted higher rates that Tambrands, an Auburn manufacturer owned by Procter & Gamble, pays compared to other company plants that compete for capital. He said energy costs are one reason AdvancePierre Foods, which bought the Barber Foods factory in Portland last year and consolidated the operation, moved some production to Oklahoma.

LePage didn’t mention that electric costs are falling for Maine businesses and industry, due to low natural gas prices. The PUC announced on Wednesday that the standard offer rate for medium commercial customers served by Central Maine Power Co. will drop 23 percent in March.

The governor also contended that if the ballot initiative is successful, state government will lose control of its ability to regulate electric rates. He said that task will shift to the Efficiency Maine Trust, the quasi-state agency that oversees conservation and efficiency.

But that statement was refuted by Michael Stoddard, Efficiency’s Maine’s executive director. He said he has read the ballot proposal, and nothing indicates that his agency would see any change in its powers or duties.

“Someone on the governor’s staff needs to fact-check that,” he said.

In response to a question about how to lower Maine’s electric costs, LePage noted the state’s efforts to encourage natural gas pipeline development, and the promise of wood pellets and off-peak, electric storage heat. But he also took a shot at conservation efforts, which he said “come at a price.”

Pointing to the incandescent chandeliers in the Holiday Inn by the Bay, LePage said the lightbulbs give off heat, and changing them to efficient fixtures would just require more oil to warm the space.

That notion also was disputed by Stoddard, who noted that lighting and cooling – not heat – are the largest expenses in most commercial buildings. Using money from electric bills, Efficiency Maine has been helping subsidize the price of compact fluorescent bulbs. Mainers bought 1.5 million last year, and Stoddard said they remain the state’s best source of energy savings.

“If people want to heat their buildings with lights, they are free to do so,” he said. “It’s just the most expensive way to heat.”

Staff writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or
tturkel@pressherald.com