AUGUSTA, Maine — The governor’s energy legislation package has generated significant debate and plenty of opposition during public hearings this week, setting up what could be yet another partisan battle in the coming weeks.
Even before public hearings were held Wednesday and Thursday on two energy-related bills offered by Gov. Paul LePage, House and Senate Democrats criticized the proposals as sweeping changes that “undercut energy efficiency and renewable energy.”
Although the governor has talked for months about his desire to introduce legislation that would reduce energy costs, it wasn’t until late last week that he unveiled his plan.
One proposal, LD 1864, would give the governor more control over the Efficiency Maine Trust, which provides a variety of programs to homeowners and businesses designed to save money.
Currently, that quasi-state agency is overseen by an independent nonpolitical board, but one of the governor’s bills would allow him to select the board chair.
The bill also includes language that creates new programs within Efficiency Maine: a rebate program for the purchase of efficient home heating systems and creating new programs to encourage homeowners to invest in efficient electric heating systems at the expense of other initiatives.
Kenneth Fletcher, Maine’s director of energy independence, testified in favor of the bill.
“We need to empower Maine people with other options. Because I don’t know what the prices of oil will be next week, next winter, or five years from now,” he said Wednesday. “But I am certainly not going to just expect that the problem is going to solve itself.”
Some said the legislation is little more than a power grab that undercuts the agency.
“It’s clear that this bill will make the trust more political,” said Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, who serves on the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee. “The best interests of Maine’s energy customers are served when Efficiency Maine is nonpolitical.”
Michael Stoddard, director of Efficiency Maine, said the creation of any new programs within Efficiency Maine would need to be funded with existing resources. That would mean taking money out of programs already in place, including weatherization.
Last year, Efficiency Maine completed thousands of weatherization projects, saving homeowners 30-40 percent or more in annual energy bills.
Stoddard said he wasn’t involved in the discussion over the governor’s energy legislation, but he wasn’t surprised by that.
Another bill proposed by the governor, LD 1863, would allow certain power generators, specifically large-scale hydro-power producers, to qualify for the state’s renewable energy portfolio. The governor’s office said this would bring down costs.
Others had a different take.
“The governor’s hydro proposal would take money from Maine people and hand it to a government-owned company in another country,” said Rep. Jon Hinck of Portland, the lead House Democrat on the Energy Committee. “This would do nothing to lower Maine energy prices but would certainly benefit Hydro Quebec.”
There is no restriction on Hydro Quebec or any other entity selling power in Maine but, at the moment, it cannot be counted in state’s renewable energy portfolio. Whether the bill decreases cost is unclear because Hydro Quebec can set its price.
Sen. Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, who sponsored both LD 1863 and 1864, said more oversight of Efficiency Maine is good and he doesn’t think anyone can oppose the concept of reducing energy costs.
There appeared to be much more support of the hydro energy bill than the Efficiency Maine bill. Chris O’Neill, representing the anti-wind group Friend of Maine’s Mountains, applauded the governor for making cost a priority.
“If we’re going to add more renewable power, let’s get the good stuff,” he said.
Public hearings also were held Thursday on two other energy-related pieces of legislation that originated from the governor’s office.
LD 1872 would change the name of the Governor’s Office of Energy Independence and Security to the Governor’s Energy Office.
LD 1875 seeks to provide pricing transparency to electricity ratepayers to show the total financial effect to ratepayers from electricity supply, transmission and delivery and state and federal government assessments. It also would require the Public Utilities Commission and the Public Advocate to submit their budget recommendations as part of the unified current services budget legislation using a zero-based budgeting process.
All of the governor’s energy bills were supposed to be voted out of committee by the end of this week but debate likely will continue into next week.
Some are upset by the delay.
“The governor said it was a top priority last summer to introduce an energy bill,” said Rep. Alex Cornell du Houx, D-Brunswick, who serves on the Energy Committee. “Now as the legislative session is in the last month, he is trying to recklessly upend good energy policy with almost no notice for a public hearing? The people deserve more time to find out if they will be one of the winners or losers under the plan.”