AUGUSTA – A legislative panel voted 12-1 Friday to endorse an ambitious package of proposals aimed at lowering Maine’s high electricity and heating costs.

The so-called Omnibus Energy Bill, which incorporates ideas from at least nine separate bills, would encourage the expansion of natural-gas pipelines into New England, increase funding for energy-efficiency efforts and provide financial assistance to help low-income families switch to more affordable heating systems.

Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Energy, Technology and Utilities Committee, said he hopes that the bipartisan support for the bill will allow it to win passage in the Legislature and survive a potential veto by Gov. Paul LePage.

After the vote, LePage’s energy director, Patrick Woodcock, said he was “encouraged” by the committee’s progress, but he added that LePage will seek to amend the bill when it goes to the House and Senate.

Woodcock said LePage is displeased that the bill does not reconsider the state’s ambitious wind energy goals and does not remove a 100-megawatt “cap” on generator output, which he believes would open the market to affordable Canadian hydropower.

Democrats and renewable-energy companies say removing the cap would hurt Maine’s homegrown industry and do nothing to lower electricity rates.

LePage should see the bill as a victory because it would lower energy costs, one of his top priorities, said Tony Buxton, a lobbyist who represents companies that are huge energy consumers, such as paper mills.

For instance, the bill would change the mission of the Public Utilities Commission, which regulates utility companies. The PUC is now charged with ensuring that rates are “just and reasonable.”

The bill would require the PUC also to focus on strategies to lower energy costs, such as investing in cost-effective efficiency for electric and gas consumers.

Buxton said the bill would do more to lower energy costs for Maine consumers than any piece of legislation he has ever seen.

“This is an historic moment,” he said after the committee vote. “Now we need to get it passed.”

The bill represents a compromise by a lot of interests, said Dylan Voorhees of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

“It’s not everything we would have wanted if we got to write the bill,” he said. “It was that way for everybody.”

The bill authorizes the PUC to enter into contracts for new gas line transmission capacity into New England.

A new gas line would allow Maine consumers to save $200 million annually on electricity costs, according to a committee analysis.

To address concerns that Maine would assume too much risk in a gas project, the committee Friday capped the size of a potential contract at $75 million annually. The committee also added the requirement that the governor approve any contract.

The bill would also repeal the 0.145 cents-per-kilowatt-hour charge that Mainers now pay on their electricity bills to fund efficiency programs.

Instead, the PUC would set a charge based on the number of cost-effective, achievable conservation measures it can identify.

LePage and some other Republicans had complained that the Legislature — not the PUC — should set the fee.

The committee Friday found a way out of that conflict. It determined that the Legislature would ultimately have the final say on the matter. Although ratepayers fund the PUC, those funds are deposited into the state treasury, and the Maine Constitution gives the Legislature control over those funds in the budget process, Cleveland said.

The bill beefs up funds that Efficiency Maine uses for electricity conservation programs, from $28 million over a two-year period to $44 million. The extra money would come from an $81.7 million settlement between the federal government and the utilities that owned the now-closed Maine Yankee nuclear power plant.

To help homeowners switch to more affordable heating systems, Efficiency Maine would get $6.6 million over two years from the regional auction on air-emission limits, known as RGGI.

The bill would also implement reforms to the Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which would lower greenhouse gas emissions in Maine and continue the RGGI program.

Rep. Aaron Libby, R-Waterboro, the only committee member to vote against the bill, said he is philosophically opposed to the idea of Maine ratepayers helping finance the expansion of a gas line.

“I really believe in the free market,” he said.

 

Tom Bell can be contacted at 274-0787 or at:

tbell@mainetoday.com

Twitter: TomBellPortland