AUGUSTA, Maine — In a straight party-line vote, the Maine Senate on Thursday approved a bill that lifts the 100-megawatt cap for qualifying renewable power generation such as hydropower.
Supporters have said the bill would allow Maine to buy low-cost energy that meets the renewable energy standard, thereby reducing energy costs for businesses and homeowners.
Opponents, however, said the bill does nothing but provide a “carrot” to the only large-scale hydropower producer in the region, Hydro Quebec, without getting anything in return.
LD 1863 was one of four energy-related bills submitted this session by Gov. Paul LePage and the one he wanted most.
Just last week, it appeared the bill would not have enough support in the Senate, but the governor’s office lobbied Republicans hard.
LePage called out some lawmakers for not supporting LD 1863 and criticized the lobbying influence of other energy providers during the process.
“I do not support Augusta being in the business of increasing costs on Maine ratepayers to pad the pockets of special-interest groups,” he said in a statement. “I believe it is morally and ethically wrong to take more money from those who can least afford it to line the pockets of those that are politically connected here in Augusta.”
Sen. Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, co-chairman of the Energy Committee, said Thursday that the bill simply gives a tool to the Maine Public Utilities Commission to seek out a long-term contract on low-cost energy.
Sen. Phil Bartlett, D-Gorham, disagreed.
He supported an amended version of the bill that would create a bid process that allows the PUC to seek requests and then make a determination about whether to lift the 100-megawatt cap.
That amended bill was actually the majority report, which was supported by Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston; Rep. Stacy Fitts, R-Pittsfield; and all six Democrats on the Energy Committee.
But the minority report, supported by the remaining Republicans on the Energy Committee, is what passed on Thursday.
“This bill goes much further. It says let’s enter into a long-term contract with one provider, and that’s Hydro Quebec,” Bartlett said. “This is about striking a deal with Hydro Quebec.”
Kenneth Fletcher, the governor’s energy director, said last week that the majority report creates a scenario by which energy providers would have to go through an exhaustive and drawn-out process that might fail to result in a deal. He said that would encourage providers to look elsewhere.
But Bartlett said there is nothing in the bill that would require Hydro Quebec to sell Maine cheap energy. In fact, he said, the Canadian firm has sold its energy to nearby Vermont at a rate above the market price.
The bill still requires approval of the House.
Follow BDN writer Eric Russell on Twitter at @BDNPolitics.