AUGUSTA, Maine — Energy-efficiency professionals urged lawmakers on Wednesday to expand weatherization and conservation programs as Maine policymakers explore ways to begin weaning the state off its dependence on foreign oil.
After budget cuts, energy will likely be one of the highest-profile and most complicated issues that the Legislature will deal with this session. Lawmakers have introduced a long list of energy-related bills proposing everything from new taxes on heating oil to tax credits for home energy projects.
The Legislature’s newly formed Energy Future Committee kicked off debate Wednesday by holding a hearing on a broad energy bill by Sen. Joe Perry, D-Bangor.
Perry’s bill, which is still in draft form, would refocus the state-run Efficiency Maine program from electricity efficiency to overall energy conservation and earmark proceeds from a cap-and-trade program on greenhouse gases toward weatherization. Most controversially, LD 501 proposes a tax on heating oil in order to fund energy-efficiency programs.
“This is a collection of my ideas of things we ought to be thinking about and talking about with regard to the energy future of Maine,” Perry said.
The tax on heating oil, which would be modeled after the BTU tax paid by consumers on their electricity bills, has received the most attention. Proceeds from such a tax would go into Efficiency Maine or other programs aimed at reducing consumers’ reliance on heating oil.
Co-chairman of the Legislature’s Taxation Committee, Perry acknowledged that some people will be uncomfortable increasing taxes on energy amid the current economic climate. But Perry said he wanted to start discussion.
“That’s why it’s a concept draft,” Perry said. “I don’t know the answers.”
Most of the discussion Wednesday focused on the benefits of improving energy efficiency of homes in Maine, which has the nation’s oldest housing stock.
Curry Caputo, a builder and certified home energy auditor with Sustainable Structures Inc. in Whitefield, recommended broadening the dialogue from insulation to weatherization. Caputo said adding insulation — especially fiberglass insulation — will not improve the efficiency of a home dramatically if the air leaks are not addressed.
Caputo said he would like to see the state offer homeowners additional incentives to invest in energy efficiency and to receive an energy audit from a trained professional. Caputo said he often hears from homeowners who know they would benefit from an audit but who cannot afford to pay out $400 or more for one.
Certified energy auditors and trained weatherization installers were — and still are in many areas — in short supply last year when heating oil prices topping $4 a gallon sent homeowners scrambling to tighten their homes before winter. While fuel prices have since eased, speakers said Wednesday it is only a matter of time before they rise again.
Ashley Richards, general manager with WarmTech Solutions in Yarmouth, agreed that weatherization programs would offer significant returns on investment. But he urged the lawmakers to make sure there are enough training programs for installers.
“The people are here,” Richards said. “They’re just not trained.”
Maine’s weatherization programs, which are managed by the State Housing Authority, likely will receive a windfall from the economic stimulus package recently passed by Congress and signed by President Obama.
Maine’s estimated share of weatherization funding is $42 million, according to John Kerry, director of the state’s Office of Energy Independence and Security. Other energy-related stimulus programs could funnel an additional $30 million to Maine, Kerry said.
Representatives of Maine’s wood pellet industry, electric utilities and large energy consumers, such as manufacturing plants, expressed support for the general conservation goals of the bill without endorsing the overall measure.
Committee members decided Wednesday to delay any action on Perry’s bill until the larger slate of weatherization and energy efficiency bills are heard. Several of those bills are being introduced by the Legislature’s leadership, although most have yet to be printed.