AUGUSTA — A partisan battle is emerging over a bill that would scale back a state law that requires 10 percent of Maine’s electricity to come from renewable energy sources, such as wind power, by 2017.

Supporters say the bill would lower Maine’s energy costs and allow the state’s manufacturers to be more competitive. Opponents say it represents a major shift in Maine’s energy policy and would drive away investment for wind, tidal and biomass energy projects in the state.

L.D. 1570, introduced by Gov. Paul LePage last week, would require that 4 percent of Maine’s electricity come from renewable energy sources. That’s the level that power companies must be at now, under current law.

The bill also would require the Maine Public Utilities Commission to get the Legislature’s approval before requiring any power company to enter into a long-term contract for energy supplies. Long-term contracts are designed to make electricity prices more stable.

Partisan differences over the bill became apparent Tuesday at a public hearing held by the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee. Several Republicans on the committee had tense exchanges with some of those who testified against the bill.

Sen. Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, who co-chairs the committee, told Paul Williamson, director of the Maine Wind Industry Initiative, that it isn’t right for the government to subsidize the wind industry at the expense of other industries, which must pay more for electricity because power companies are forced to buy electricity produced by alternative energy.

“Aren’t you concerned about the jobs it will cost other manufacturers in the state to buy that product?” Thibodeau asked.

Williamson replied that the state’s current energy policy has attracted $1 billion in investment over the last four years and could bring an additional $16 billion in the next few years.

“Aren’t you talking about jumping over dollars to chase nickels?” Williamson asked Thibodeau.

Republican Reps. Larry Dunphy of Embden and Aaron Libby of Waterboro also complained about public subsidies for alternative energy.

Nine of the 13 members are serving on the committee for the first time. One of the veterans, Sen. Philip Bartlett, D-Gorham, said in an interview after the hearing that Maine’s current energy policies were adopted with bipartisan support, but some of the new Republicans on the committee have brought an ideological point of view to the issue.

He said the bill’s passage would send a message to alternative-energy investors that Maine’s regulatory climate is unstable. “This would be a dramatic change and departure from a policy that Republicans and Democrats have supported for the last six or eight years,” Bartlett said.

John Ferland, project developer for Portland-based Ocean Renewable Power Co., said the bill would end the emerging tide-energy industry in Maine. He said Maine is already recognized as a national leader in the industry and has the best tidal energy resources on the East Coast.

The bill, he said, “would yank the rug out” of the entire ocean-energy industry.

The goal of the bill is to lower the price of electricity for Maine consumers, said Kenneth Fletcher, director of the governor’s Office of Energy Independence and Security.

The price of electricity in Maine is significantly higher than the national average, creating an obstacle to attracting investment and creating jobs, Fletcher said.

Keeping the current rate of renewable energy use at 4 percent and forgoing the increase to 10 percent could save ratepayers as much as $42 million over the next six years, he said.

Several opponents of wind energy spoke in favor of the bill.

Chris O’Neil, a lobbyist for Friends of Maine’s Mountains, said wind energy advocates who say the bill would dry up investment in Maine are engaging in hyperbole.

He said Maine’s incentives for alternative energy account for just a small fraction of the government subsidies that benefit wind power projects in the state.

“It is interesting to see an industry that has had carte blanche for years panic when someone tries to take a nibble out of them,” O’Neil said.

The committee is scheduled to debate the bill Friday and vote the same day.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 699-6261 or at: [email protected]