AUGUSTA — In 2012, Gov. Paul LePage introduced a bill designed to lower electric costs. To advance his vision, he needed to convince lawmakers that removing a limit on renewable energy credits for hydropower would unleash a flood of cheap power from Quebec.
He was unable to do that, and the bill died in the Legislature.
In the next two legislative sessions, the governor or a Republican ally on the committee that handles energy issues reintroduced essentially the same bill, with the same outcome. This month, Rep. Beth O’Connor, R-Berwick, gave it another try.
It has become a joke among lobbyists and some state officials that if it’s March, it’s time to dust off their testimony for or against the 100-megawatt cap, as the bill has become known.
The stalemate over the cap is emblematic of LePage’s track record on energy.
The high cost of energy is a signature issue for LePage. He mentions it frequently, highlighting the burden on low-income Mainers and businesses, even warning twice over the past two years about large employers that were poised to leave the state because of energy costs, although those specific departures didn’t happen.
But after six years in office, the governor’s accomplishments on energy are mixed. He has helped keep electric rates essentially flat, opposing measures that could make them higher than they might otherwise be. At the same time, he has largely failed to advance policies that actually lower the price of energy – his often-stated goal.
His prospects for making progress lowering prices look even worse this year.
His big plans to expand natural gas pipeline capacity and import power from Canada are stalled. Meanwhile, the governor has gone into his last full session of the Legislature without a permanent energy director, at war with his own appointees to the Public Utilities Commission and Office of Public Advocate, and lacking a cohesive agenda for lawmakers on the energy committee to consider.
LePage’s clearest achievement may be his support for a massive rollout of super-efficient electric heat pumps that are cutting oil use in homes and small businesses.
Beyond advancing heat pumps, the governor mostly has been playing defense, standing between almost every initiative that could add a penny or more to an electric bill, from rooftop solar and utility-scale wind power to energy efficiency.
Although Maine’s overall electric rates are the lowest in New England, LePage insists that they should be on par with regions fueled by coal and federally subsidized hydro projects. But his frequent attacks on the cost of homegrown, renewable power obscure a historic change taking place in wholesale energy markets.
The headline is that the price of making electricity is falling while the cost of getting it to homes and businesses has risen. This reversal has made the cost of delivering power a bigger portion of a home electric bill than the price of producing energy.
But LePage’s energy priorities don’t seem to recognize these facts, said Sen. Mark Dion, D-Portland.
“I don’t think there’s a full appreciation that cheap power requires affordable transmission,” said Dion, who sits on the energy committee and is a former co-chairman.
Dion said he shares the governor’s goal of reducing oil dependence. At the urging of industrial energy users, Dion is sponsoring a bill to extend a deadline by which Maine must decide about investing in natural gas pipeline capacity in New England. Aimed at increasing gas supply and lowering electric generating costs in the winter, it’s a major priority of LePage and Republican leaders. It was the cornerstone of the Omnibus Energy Bill passed in 2013.
But LePage opposed the omnibus bill. He was mad that it didn’t remove the 100-megawatt cap, and that the Maine Public Utilities Commission had approved an above-market power rate contract for a floating wind farm to be built as a pilot project by the Norwegian energy giant Statoil. He wanted the agency to redo the contract to favor a competing project led by the University of Maine.
The bill passed. LePage vetoed it, but the Legislature overrode his veto with broad support from Republicans. Rebuffed, Statoil left the state; the university-led project is trying to get in the water in 2019.
For now, gas expansion in Maine is essentially dead because a court decision in Massachusetts, the region’s largest gas consumer, forbids ratepayers from being billed for pipeline projects.
ENERGY FOOT SOLDIERS
The governor also has tangled over funding for Efficiency Maine, the trust that oversees efforts to use less energy. He objects to using surcharges on electric bills to help fund the quasi-state agency and wants more control over it.
His opposition came to a head in 2015, when a clerical error in a law funding the agency required a one-word legislative fix. The fix added $59 million to the trust, but also raised customer bills from 78 cents a month to $3.13. The bill was vetoed by LePage, but both the House and Senate voted unanimously to override the veto.
LePage’s refusal to compromise, a hallmark of his governing style, set the tone for future dealings on energy matters. But he was fortunate to have hired two energy directors who developed a good rapport with the Legislature.
The first was Ken Fletcher, a longtime Republican lawmaker who had served on the committee. He left in 2013.
Fletcher was followed by Patrick Woodcock, an adviser in Washington, D.C., to former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe. Woodcock resigned in November. He had become the go-to person for anyone trying to decipher LePage’s position on energy details.
“There’s a tremendous void there now,” said Sen. David Woodsome, R-Waterboro, the committee’s co-chairman. “He was very knowledgeable. He tried to build consensus. It’s a huge loss.”
With Woodcock gone, and only weeks before the Legislature reconvened, the task of conveying LePage’s energy agenda fell to Angela Monroe. She’s a veteran PUC analyst who’s serving as the governor’s acting energy director, but she lacks the relationships developed by Fletcher and Woodcock.
Woodcock reached out to the committee chairmen, meeting over lunch, discussing policy and looking for areas of compromise, Dion said. Monroe isn’t widely known by lawmakers. And the fact that LePage apparently has no plans to name a permanent director is raising questions about how forcefully he’ll be able to convey new ideas to the Legislature.
LePage didn’t respond to a request for comment on this story.
Monroe, who consented to answer questions via email, said she’s drafting bills, providing testimony and working with the committee.
And she noted that during the governor’s tenure, retail electricity prices in Maine fell by 1 percent, while they rose in the rest of New England by 20 percent. Nationally, retail electricity rates rose 11 percent over that span, from 9.28 cents per kilowatt-hour to 10.31 cents. In Maine, they fell from 12.84 cents in 2010, to 12.78 cents in 2015, according to federal data.
Monroe declined to discuss the reasons, but southern New England states generally have chosen to purchase and encourage more renewable power generation at above-market costs. That’s a contrast to LePage’s opposition to solar and wind, and an explanation of how Maine has kept rates from rising as much.
As the legislative session shifts into high gear, LePage may tap a former three-term lawmaker who served on the energy committee.
Journalism you can trust.
We need it now more than ever.
Get a digital subscription to the
Portland Press Herald
Larry Dunphy, a former Republican who withdrew from the party in 2015 and completed his term unaffiliated, confirmed that LePage met with him last week about working part time. Dunphy is a blunt-talking, former paper worker who knows his way around the Legislature.
“I could be a liaison to the committee,” he said. “I think the governor is trying to do the right thing, which is lower the cost of energy without damaging the environment.”
Dunphy’s policy experience could complement the hands-on expertise of Jim LeBrecque, who has functioned as LePage’s unpaid “technical adviser” on energy matters. LeBrecque plans to start working part time in a paid position for the governor.
A refrigeration expert with an engineering focus, LeBrecque was the driving force behind heat pumps. He informs the governor’s opposition to solar and wind energy. He also plans to promote an unconventional idea of powering heat pumps in Maine with hydroelectricity from Quebec, a concept he tried to explain to the committee this month while testifying against the 100-megawatt cap.
But in the Legislature, LeBrecque is known for dissertations and strident viewpoints. Asked whether LeBrecque could effectively communicate for the governor, Woodsome, the committee co-chairman, said he wasn’t sure.
“Things are black and white for him,” Woodsome said. “He’s a nickels and pennies guy.”
OUT OF FAVOR
LeBrecque shares the governor’s frustration with recent action of his PUC appointees, who voted in January on a compromise plan that keeps for 15 years key financial incentives for existing rooftop solar panels and phases them out for new systems. LePage wants the incentives eliminated now, and said last month that he’d ask the three commissioners to resign, if he could.
As it happens, the term of one of the commissioners, Carlisle McLean, is up this month. McLean is LePage’s former legal counsel. It’s unclear whether LePage will nominate someone else, although it’s known in energy circles that he’s considering other candidates.
Regardless, his statements sent a clear political message to a quasi-judicial panel, which considers itself an impartial arbiter guided by law and legislative directive.
LeBrecque, meanwhile, has gone on conservative talk radio to decry the PUC for being made up of lawyers, ignoring the fact that the current chairman is an engineer and the third member is a utility economist.
LePage’s ire extends to his public advocate, whom he appointed in 2013. But he lost confidence in Tim Schneider, who represents utility customers, after Schneider helped broker a compromise solar energy bill that LePage opposed last year in the Legislature.
LePage later told a conservative talk radio host that picking Schneider was “one of the worst, worst decisions ever in my life.”
Schneider’s term expires in May. He said recently that he doesn’t expect to be reappointed.
Taken together, the disorder on energy policy has even some of the governor’s strongest supporters frustrated.
The 100-megawatt cap bill does have support, from parties that include Central Maine Power and Schneider’s office. But opponents have made a consistent case that Quebec exports hydro power at market prices, not discounts, that it has no direct transmission lines connecting Maine, and that Canadian imports would hurt local generators. For these and other reasons, there’s no indication that the bill will fare any better in 2017.
O’Connor, who introduced the latest 100-megawatt cap bill, lamented the governor’s testy relationship with lawmakers and his inability to move ideas through the legislative process. She blamed partisan politics but, beyond heat pumps, was unable to give a specific example of what the governor had promoted that lowered energy costs.
“He hasn’t been able to do much, and it’s a problem,” she said.
This spring, though, the governor may play a pivotal role in energy policy.
Democrats and their clean-energy allies are drafting a bill to replace the PUC’s new rule on solar, which also displeases them.
It would codify the financial incentives for rooftop solar, known as net metering. And in a move that’s sure to anger the governor, the bill would create millions of dollars in rebates, paid for by electric customers.
Last year, the Legislature fell two votes short of overriding LePage’s veto of a hard-fought solar bill. Similar dynamics are shaping up this year. Whatever its merits, rooftop solar has garnered great public interest. So even with a diminished ability to promote what he likes, LePage can influence energy policy by fighting what he hates.
Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: