State committee backs sweeping energy bill

Posted May 14, 2009, at 9:34 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A legislative committee on Thursday endorsed a massive energy bill that would revamp Maine’s efficiency and conservation programs but could slow down Gov. John Baldacci’s plan for “energy corridors” through the state.

The omnibus bill recommended by the Energy Futures Committee establishes ambitious goals for moving Maine toward greater energy independence while creating new initiatives within state government to funnel money into energy programs.

Revenues for the programs would come from a variety of sources, including federal stimulus funds, bonds, leases of state-owned land for energy transmission, and potentially additional fees tacked onto heating oil.

But the bill also reflects cross-border tensions with Canadian officials over energy issues.

Committee members opted for a more cautious approach toward Baldacci’s energy corridor proposal in part because of anger over Canadian threats to block liquefied natural gas tankers from accessing import terminals proposed for Down East Maine. Canadian officials have cited safety concerns about tankers passing through Head Harbor Passage en route to the Calais area, but advocates for the LNG proposals accuse Canada of trying to protect its own burgeoning energy industry.

“Maine should not simply be a pathway for them to get their power out of New Brunswick without us seeing some benefit from it,” said Rep. John Martin, an Eagle Lake Democrat and the committee’s co-chairman. New Brunswick-based Irving Oil has expressed interest in the energy corridors.

The version of the bill endorsed by the majority of the committee Thursday would create a commission to study how Maine could maximize the benefits of leasing the state’s highway corridors for energy transmission projects.

Irving and Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. are already exploring leasing the interstate corridors as potential routes for large transmission lines with fewer environmental headaches or tussles with landowners. In return, the state could conceivably receive tens of millions of dollars annually for energy conservation, efficiency and weatherization.

As written, the bill prohibits the state from signing any leases on energy corridor projects until a law is put in place governing the agreements. But it would not prohibit companies from exploring the issue or even applying for environmental permits.

“When you are entering into these large agreements that are going to forever change the energy dynamics in the state, you want to make sure you get everything you can out of it,” said Sen. Phil Bartlett, a Gorham Democrat and committee co-chairman.

John Kerry, head of the state’s Office of Energy Independence and Security, said overall the bill is a positive step that will redefine the state’s framework on energy efficiency and conservation.

Kerry said he does not believe the energy infrastructure commission would be a problem because permitting and project development take a long time. In the meantime, it is important that the state continues to send a positive message to potential developers.

The bill lays out a series of goals for the state. Those include:

ä Weatherizing all Maine homes and 50 percent of businesses by 2030.

ä Reducing peak-load electricity usage by 100 megawatts by 2020.

ä Reducing consumption of liquid fossil fuels by at least 30 percent by 2030 and of heating oil in particular by 20 percent by 2020.

Bartlett, who is also Senate majority leader, called the measure an incredibly important bill “that will change the way we do energy efficiency … and lay the groundwork for Maine to be more energy-independent.”

The bill also establishes the Efficiency Maine Trust to oversee development and implementation of energy programs. Additional programs would offer rebates to homeowners who purchase solar energy systems and expand training for careers in installation of alternative energy sources, weatherization and energy auditing.

Funding for the programs would come from a variety of sources, including: federal stimulus dollars, proceeds from carbon dioxide emission allowances sold through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a $30 million bond and the interstate lease projects.

One option that the Efficiency Maine Trust would explore is imposing a surcharge on No. 2 heating oil, kerosene and propane with proceeds going into heating fuel efficiency and weatherization programs. The state also imposes such fees, known as a “system benefit charge,” on electricity.

The newly formed committee reviewed dozens of energy-related bills, borrowing ideas from some for the current bill and rejecting others.

Dylan Voorhees, clean energy and global warming project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, called the bill “quite a remarkable achievement” that takes a significant step in ramping up Maine’s efforts on energy efficiency and weatherization.

But Voorhees pointed out that the state still has to identify a long-term funding solution for all of these programs. Federal stimulus dollars, while helpful in the short term, will not spark significant long-term growth in Maine’s energy efficiency industry, he said.

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