April 22, 2013

Can state cut energy costs? The heat is on

The governor and Legislature will need to compromise to come up with sorely needed efficiencies.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Mainers are burdened by some of the highest energy bills in the country. Paying $3,000 to $4,000 a year to heat a home is not uncommon. Over the next month, state lawmakers will try to agree on specific steps to lower those costs.

click image to enlarge

In this October 2012 file photo, The Revs. Alice and David Anderman show off a new energy-efficient furnace, hot water tank and foam insulation-covered walls in the basement of their home in Waterville.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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A handful of proposed laws aim to increase access to natural gas, help homeowners switch heating systems, and make homes and businesses more efficient, so they use less fuel or electricity. In some cases, taxpayers, oil heat customers or utility ratepayers would help pay for the measures.

But with a Democratic majority in the Legislature and a Republican governor who is averse to spending hikes and rate subsidies, meaningful accomplishments will demand compromise.

"We have the potential for a stalemate if we go along partisan lines," said Sen. John Cleveland, an Auburn Democrat who is co-chairman of the committee that handles energy legislation. "And that would not be a good outcome for Maine."

Some of the key bills would:

Redirect money now spent on cutting electricity consumption and use a portion of it to subsidize the purchase of more efficient home heating equipment or home weatherization.

Authorize a $55 million bond issue to weatherize and upgrade efficiency in homes.

Add resources to Efficiency Maine Trust, a fund supported by the auction of greenhouse gas emission limits that supports energy efficiency programs.

Create a state authority to issue bonds that would pay for expanding natural gas pipelines, giving more residents access to a less expensive fuel for heating.

Cleveland's committee has held public hearings on a few of these proposals, but most are expected to be presented over the next three weeks. The Legislature has set a May 17 deadline for committees to finish their work on bills, so there's not much time.

Cleveland said his goal is to craft elements of the leading bills into a comprehensive package that can gain political traction but also have real benefits for Mainers.

"If we can't find common ground, it's likely that most of these bills won't survive," Cleveland said. "We can't all be purists on this issue, or we'll get nothing done."

Cutting heating costs is the focus of a proposal from Gov. Paul LePage. It would shift millions of dollars from programs that lower home and business electricity usage to efforts that can cut home heating bills.

The plan would essentially change the mission of Efficiency Maine Trust, the quasi-public agency set up in 2009 to administer energy efficiency programs. Most of the trust's funding comes from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, a program in which air-emission limits are sold at auction, and through a small tax on electric bills, called a system benefit charge. Because the funding is linked to electric rates, most of the trust's programs are aimed at cost-effective measures to cut electricity costs, such as upgrading motors in factories or subsidizing compact-fluorescent light bulbs.

"I think there's a genuine interest in refocusing on heating costs," said Patrick Woodcock, the governor's energy director.

Changes in the RGGI program mean Maine stands to take in up to $9 million this year. Forty percent of that -- roughly $3.6 million -- would be earmarked for homeowners to cut heating costs, through measures that could include buying more-efficient heating systems, switching from oil to natural gas, or weatherizing their homes.

Cleveland has agreed to co-sponsor the bill, which could give it added weight. Despite that, the bill contains elements that Cleveland acknowledges he and other Democrats will find hard to support.

For instance: One provision exempts some larger businesses and industries from paying into the system benefit charge. The aim, according to Woodcock, is to lower electric rates for businesses that compete in parts of the country where costs are lower.

(Continued on page 2)

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