March 11, 2010

Stimulus funds may help save energy

TUX TURKEL

— By

Staff Writer

The first federal economic stimulus dollars for an expanded program to weatherize thousands of Maine homes and trim energy costs for businesses and communities are expected to be available by June, following a legislative vote Wednesday.

A special legislative committee voted unanimously in favor of a wide-ranging plan by the Public Utilities Commission for an unprecedented push to increase energy efficiency and make Maine less vulnerable to volatile fuel prices.

The package will cost $36.9 million over two years. It's expected to create more than 1,000 jobs, for people who will measure the efficiency of homes, public spaces and businesses, insulate and seal buildings, and install solar panels, for example.

The full Legislature and Gov. John Baldacci must endorse the plan and forward it to the federal government for approval before a May 12 deadline. A proposed amendment next week could potentially change how the money would be split among businesses.

But overall, Wednesday's vote provides a broad outline of a new direction for Maine in energy matters.

''This is a potential game changer for us,'' said Sen. Philip Bartlett, D-Gorham, co-chairman of the Joint Select Committee on Maine's Energy Future. ''We need to prepare ourselves for when oil goes back to $4 a gallon.''

The PUC's plan, Bartlett said, does a good job of directing the federal money to where it will have the greatest effect on energy efficiency and job creation.

The stimulus money should allow Maine to put the people and programs in place to begin to meet ambitious goals that include upgrading the energy efficiency of every home, he said.

Proposals for how to continue the efforts after the federal money is spent -- while the state is facing a $600 million budget gap -- are expected to be discussed in Augusta in the coming days.

''The federal funds will magnify the effect of what we have to do anyway,'' Bartlett said, ''which is to weatherize every home in the state.''

HELP FOR LOW-INCOME MAINERS

The PUC's energy package complements a weatherization program that's being expanded by the Maine State Housing Authority for low-income residents.

That program is getting $41.9 million in federal money to insulate and air-seal 4,400 homes and to train workers, said Dan Simpson, a housing authority spokesman. The money is expected to be available in July.

Most employees for the weatherization work will be hired through Community Action Program agencies, Simpson said, although the number remains unclear.

The housing authority has had a low-income weatherization program for many years. The pending PUC package marks the first time government money will be available to insulate and air-seal homes for the rest of the population.

The stimulus money includes $10.1 million for that two-year effort.

The money is coming during what officials believe may be a brief respite from high energy prices, caused by the global economic downturn.

''This is a window of opportunity we have,'' said Sharon Reishus, the PUC's chair.

The PUC program aims to weatherize 4,000 homes in the first two years.

Many residents, of course, already have taken steps to make their homes more efficient. But proper insulation and air-sealing can cut 25 percent from the average bill in a home that's heated with oil, Reishus said.

1,000 NEW JOBS EXPECTED

Details about how homeowners can apply for the limited funds are still being worked out.

It's likely that homes will need certified energy audits, to determine the most cost-effective improvements; that qualified contractors must do the work; and that the performance must be verified before homeowners get rebate checks, according to PUC staff members.

The stimulus package includes money for those requirements, including $400,000 to train as many as 250 energy auditors and installers.

Overall, the PUC expects the package to create more than 1,000 jobs, based on national estimates.

The PUC package also directs $8.2 million to the industrial sector, for factories and paper mills.

It includes $4.3 million in grants for projects that would have ''a certain and immediate impact on jobs and energy savings in Maine.''

Other criteria for awarding grants include whether money can be leveraged against other sources and have a long-term effect on the state's economy.

Smaller businesses, such as offices and stores, can tap into a $6.45 million pool of money for project grants, loans and audits to upgrade refrigeration, lighting, machinery and other energy uses.

A work force development component in the plan will set aside $1.8 million to train residents who want to enter the ''new energy industry.''

The PUC will work with high school technical centers, the state Department of Labor and other parties.

Some of the money will go to help retrain unemployed workers.

Also noteworthy: A popular PUC program that offers rebates to residents who install solar and wind power equipment will be fortified with $1 million. The program has run out of money in the past.

Also, municipalities will be eligible for $5.8 million in grants for projects that range from capturing methane gas energy from landfills to installing renewable energy equipment. Terms are still being developed.

To help manage the programs, the PUC's Efficiency Maine and State Energy Program staff will likely grow from six to 12, depending on what work is contracted with private service providers.

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

tturkel@pressherald.com

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