CONTRIBUTORS

Maine on the right track with energy efficiency

Posted Feb. 27, 2012, at 4:47 p.m.

Energy costs are on a lot of minds in Maine these days, and for good reason. Oil prices are dangerously high and electricity costs are an issue for many businesses. While oil prices are determined globally, and our electricity rates generally rise and fall in response to natural gas prices, there are lots of ways Maine homeowners and businesses can reduce their energy costs.

Thousands of Maine businesses have reduced their energy costs by 20 or 30 percent with more efficient lighting, compressors, motors, appliances and other equipment. That’s like getting a 20- or 30-percent discount on energy prices, and every dollar saved helps the bottom line.

For example, Formtek is a manufacturer in Pittsfield that builds machines for sheet metal fabrication. It paid $55,000 to install energy-efficient lighting fixtures throughout their facility, which was two-thirds of the project cost. Efficiency Maine paid for the other third, and provided much-needed technical assistance too.

Formtek is now saving $25,000 on its electricity bills every year, Maine companies employing Maine people did the installation, and the new lighting makes Formtek’s workers safer and more productive, too.

This is just one example. Former state economist Charles Colgan wrote that “perhaps the single most effective action to enhance Maine’s business climate and economic competitiveness is to aggressively increase the energy efficiency of Maine’s economy.” I recently served on the board of directors of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. In its report “Making Maine Work,” the Chamber said increasing energy efficiency should be an immediate priority.

In addition to helping businesses, Efficiency Maine also helps homeowners reduce electric and heating bills. Last year the programs helped thousands of homeowners save an average of $1,400 each (or 40 percent) on their annual heating oil bills through highly successful home energy-efficiency improvements. The reduction in oil bills was equivalent to buying oil for just $1.15 a gallon, a real bargain.

Maine businesses, homeowners, schools and other institutions are saving money with energy efficiency in large part because they are partnering with Efficiency Maine, Maine’s one-stop efficiency shop.

Efficiency Maine makes energy-efficiency investments happen by increasing public awareness, providing the technical and financial assistance needed, and keeping a list of qualified contractors. Consumers don’t see it as directly, but Efficiency Maine is helping transform markets so that energy-efficient choices can become more widespread and affordable on their own.

In 2009, the Legislature established the Efficiency Maine Trust to consolidate the state’s energy-efficiency efforts and make Efficiency Maine an independent entity that is focused squarely on specific energy savings targets. The trust has an independent board (which I sit on) and is overseen by the Public Utilities Commission. The trust “supplies” electricity savings with a tiny portion of ratepayer funds, similar to the way utilities supply electricity and transmission lines using ratepayer funds.

Efficiency Maine has a small staff, most of whom are not state employees. They deliver most of their services through private contractors who win competitive bids, and the actual work installing energy-efficient equipment is done by an expanding field of completely independent businesses — electricians, insulation installers, engineers and others.

For every $1 invested with the help of Efficiency Maine, businesses and homeowners save $2-$4, and independent studies have demonstrated that they are making efficiency investments that they wouldn’t otherwise make on their own.

Last year, the trust alone helped homeowners and businesses save $450 million on their electricity and oil bills over the coming years. And, in doing so, those energy consumers paid Maine companies and workers, instead of sending those dollars out of state to buy fuels, improving the economy and increasing energy independence.

Furthermore, electricity saved through Efficiency Maine cost only 3 cents/kwh, less than half the price of buying a kilowatt-hour from the power grid. (That was the lowest Efficiency Maine has ever achieved.)

Although it is disappointing that Maine continues to have the lowest per capita rate of investment in energy efficiency in New England, I’m pleased that the Efficiency Maine has been able to achieve such enormous savings at such a low cost. The trust’s first full year in operation was its best ever by any measure.

Taking greater control over Maine’s energy future is a daunting, long-term challenge. It requires a steady effort over time. Maximizing savings through energy efficiency should continue to be one of Maine’s most important energy policies.

I encourage all Maine people and businesses to contact Efficiency Maine so we can work together to reduce energy costs, and encourage policymakers to sustain and build on our success so far.

John Rohman is the former CEO of WBRC Architects and Engineers and a former mayor of Bangor. He sits on the board of the Efficiency Maine Trust.

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