AUGUSTA — This past January, with temperatures plunging into a deep freeze, the Governor’s Energy Office received a phone call on a Friday from an elderly veteran who was facing the chilling prospect of no heat for the weekend.
He did not have the minimum amount of cash for an oil delivery of 100 gallons, so he was preparing to make the walk to fill his 5-gallon kerosene can intermittently throughout the weekend to stay warm and avoid the bitter cold.
Anguished pleas like this have been coming for decades into the Governor’s Energy Office. The response has been to rely on the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, a federal program that provides direct support to purchase home heating fuel, or the generosity of nonprofits throughout our state. While these efforts mitigate the problem, they are short-term solutions. We need a real policy to confront the underlying challenge.
The sad truth is that Maine’s policy has been to bundle up, hope for a mild winter and trust that then-Sen. Olympia Snowe and the rest of the congressional delegation could deliver critical federal dollars through LIHEAP.
This cannot continue. Despite efforts of the congressional delegation, federal assistance funds have declined and the price of home heating oil has more than doubled over the last decade.
We must get to the heart of our energy challenge. Beyond the personal toll that high heating prices take on households throughout the state, they are also a barrier for job creation and economic growth. Mainers spend well over $3,000 on residential energy costs every year — more than twice the national average — restricting disposable income that could be spent in the Maine economy.
As Gov. LePage announced in his State of the State address in February, his administration’s energy policy has been simple: redirect finite state funds to where Mainers need it the most and help Mainers invest in affordable energy options.
The governor seeks to expand affordable heating options from natural gas, wood pellets, heat pumps, propane, advanced oil heating systems and energy efficiency.
On the business side, the administration has focused on lowering electricity prices through regional partnerships to get competitively priced hydropower and by expanding natural gas infrastructure throughout Maine.
The Legislature united on some aspects of this plan. Today, finally, the first objective of the state of Maine’s energy policy is to reduce residential energy costs. While this should have been done decades ago, it signals a sea change. We can now focus on practical policies to help Mainers keep more money in their pockets and finally begin to start reducing our heating costs.
The administration and Efficiency Maine Trust are now soliciting public comments and feedback on how we can make fundamental investments to reduce heating costs.
This is the discussion that Maine should have been having decades ago and will lead to helping Mainers purchase advanced technology to reduce their annual heating bills. The fact is that by making these investments, we can mitigate the requirement for subsidies for the purchase of home heating fuel to simply get through a cold winter.
Regrettably, the Legislature did not stop at these common-sense reforms. Instead of simply redirecting our state policy with the millions that Maine collects today, the Legislature unfortunately believed that the way to address our energy challenge was to further increase fees on energy.
Energy taxes are regressive, and they disproportionately affect those on fixed incomes such as our elderly and low-income populations. This is the wrong direction to grow the Maine economy and only adds to the burden facing household budgets.
As we move past the legislative session, there are two objectives by the LePage administration as we move to implement the new energy law:
• Reduce electricity rates to attract job-creating business capital.
• Assist Mainers in lowering their home heating costs.
We must prepare now for the inevitable cold spell this winter and help Mainers to make investments that will reduce their annual pleas for heating subsidies and keep more money in the Maine economy.
From now until winter, this administration will continue efforts to initiate a program that helps Mainers finally take control of their fuel costs and invest in modern heating equipment, and we welcome your feedback. Our energy challenges will not be solved easily, but by establishing a basic mission to reduce heating costs in the state of Maine, we are finally on the right track.
Patrick Woodcock is director of the Governor’s Energy Office.