AUGUSTA – Warm spring weather provided a sharp contrast to a concern of lawmakers on Tuesday as they debated the best way for state government to offer Mainers some relief from high energy bills next winter.

One approach maintains and expands energy efficiency programs, steering millions of dollars to efforts that weatherize drafty homes and help businesses use less electricity. Efficiency is the most cost-effective resource, supporters say, noting that between 20 percent and 40 percent of the $5 billion Mainers spend on energy each year is wasted.

Another strategy shifts some of that efficiency money to reduce home-heating costs directly, and could let Mainers use a rebate to help buy a new heating system. Home heating is the biggest energy burden facing Mainers today, advocates say, with many residents spending more than $3,000 a year to keep warm.

The latter plan also would use some efficiency funds to marginally reduce electric rates at large companies, and exempt others from paying a small charge on electric bills that supports efficiency programs.

The two approaches — increased efficiency or direct subsidization — were proposed in separate bills that had public hearings on Tuesday, but neither is destined to move ahead unchanged. Leaders of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee say they intend to take elements of each bill, along with other proposals, and craft a comprehensive plan that can provide timely and meaningful aid to residents and business owners.

Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn, said he expects his committee to consider the package at a work session next Monday. Any compromise will have to bridge the gap between the two visions outlined Tuesday, and win the support of a Democratic majority in the Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican governor who’s averse to spending hikes and rate subsidies.

Mainers could save hundreds of millions of additional dollars by maintaining and beefing up energy efficiency programs, say supporters of a bill sponsored by Sen. Jim Boyle, D-Gorham. They want to continue using money Maine receives from a regional program in which air-emission limits are sold at auction to support the efforts of Efficiency Maine Trust, which oversees the state’s conservation programs.

“With limited public funds, spending money to help switch fuels instead of funding efficiency is generally the wrong priority,” said Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Many businesses, which have benefited from programs operated by Efficiency Maine, agree. Jim Wellehan, chief executive officer of Lamey-Wellehan Shoes, testified on behalf of 252 businesses, ranging in size from Maine Medical Center in Portland to Black Dinah Chocolatiers on Isle au Haut. Saving electricity through efficiency costs half that of buying power, he said.

Also testifying in favor of Boyle’s bill was Senate President Justin Alfond, a Portland Democrat.

“If we let inertia, or worse, politics, get in the way of lowering energy costs for Maine families and business owners, shame on us,” he said.

But Rep. Larry Dunphy, R-North Anson, who’s sponsoring the competing bill on the behalf of LePage, challenged Alfond to explain how the plan would lower energy costs for Mainers next winter. How is it going to help a family in Jackman, he asked?

Alfond said it wouldn’t help to take money from efficiency programs. Efficiency is a tool that lowers costs, he said.

Dunphy countered that it makes sense to take some of the money from the regional air-emissions program to cut heating costs now. But Alfond noted that a part of the LePage bill would exempt more large companies from paying an electric bill charge that supports Efficiency Maine. “How’s that going to help that family in Jackman, Maine?” he asked.

Cleveland ended the exchange by saying that the committee would strike an “appropriate balance” between the two visions in the pending work session.

Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at [email protected]