AUGUSTA, Maine — The man who has led Gov. Paul LePage’s energy office for the past two years is stepping down and being replaced by an adviser to departing U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, LePage’s office announced Wednesday.
Kenneth Fletcher, a Republican who served four terms in the Maine House before taking the job of leading LePage’s energy office, will step down effective Friday. Patrick Woodcock will take over the energy office reins on Monday, LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said.
“The two have been in touch with each other to get Patrick up to speed,” Bennett said. “With the start of a legislative session upon us, it’s going to be an exciting time for the new director, with energy being one of the top issues.”
As director of the governor’s energy office, Fletcher, 67, served as LePage’s spokesman on energy initiatives and spearheaded the administration’s unsuccessful effort to qualify hydropower as a renewable energy source under Maine’s renewable portfolio standard. More recently, Fletcher has raised questions about whether a pilot project to install four floating wind turbines off the Maine coast would result in higher electricity prices for consumers.
Fletcher, who lives in Winslow and serves on the Winslow Town Council, said he plans to retire and devote more time to his Town Council service, projects around the house and traveling. When he was hired to lead the energy office, he said he told LePage he was approaching retirement and planned to work only a couple years.
“He has really brought the whole subject of energy cost way up to the top of the list,” Fletcher said of LePage. “He has recognized that’s a critical factor, and I think in the last few years, we’ve got the ball rolling in the right direction.”
Woodcock, 31, has served as an energy and environment adviser to Snowe since March 2011 and has worked for the Republican senator since 2005. Woodcock also has interned with Sen. Susan Collins’ office and managed campaigns for Republican state Senate candidates. He earned a bachelor’s degree in government from Bowdoin College in 2004.
Woodcock, who grew up in Hampden, arrives as LePage continues to press for initiatives that he says will lower electricity prices in Maine. LePage has pressed to expand the availability of natural gas in Maine, and has expressed frustration that two companies are at odds in court over the right to build pipelines to supply state facilities with natural gas and connect the rest of the Kennebec Valley.
The LePage administration has a number of bills pending for the coming legislative session aimed at addressing the cost of electricity in Maine, though the details aren’t yet public.
As a legislator, Fletcher was a “very thoughtful person who did his homework,” said Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, who will be chairman of the new Legislature’s Energy Committee.
As energy office director, “I thought he did a good job,” Hobbins said. “He was someone whose boss had a different philosophical bent on some issues than he did. He obviously was successful in representing the governor.”
LePage has been an outspoken critic of wind energy during his two years in office, and has partially blamed state policies designed to encourage its development for higher electricity costs in Maine. And while his administration hasn’t outright opposed it, it hasn’t embraced efforts to develop tidal energy generation in Cobscook Bay off the coast of Washington County.
With the help of a $10 million federal Department of Energy grant, Portland-based Ocean Renewable Power Co. plans to install 24 underwater turbines in the Bay of Fundy in 2014 after it completed a pilot project this fall off the coast of Eastport.
“Obviously, tidal energy is not on the governor’s priority list,” said Christopher Sauer, president and CEO of Ocean Renewable Power Co. “Ken was always very cordial, but obviously very guarded and pretty much neutral in supporting us. Ken has a tough job.”
Sauer said he worked closely with Woodcock when he worked for Snowe, a supporter of Ocean Renewable’s tidal energy project.
“We just have the highest regard for Patrick, a guy of real intelligence and integrity,” Sauer said. With Woodcock as the director of LePage’s energy office, “it will enhance our ability to get an audience.”
With a lack of state support for Ocean Renewable’s project, Sauer said it can be more difficult to attract the support of investors.
Woodcock said LePage has been right to focus closely on the cost of energy in Maine.
“For a long time, Maine has been challenged with high energy costs,” he said. “We’ve been inhibited for a long time by really very few options.
It’s a promising sign that natural gas companies are competing to supply the Kennebec Valley with the cheaper energy source, Woodcock said. Improving the energy efficiency of homes and businesses in Maine is also a key part of lowering energy costs, he said.
“The bottom line is Mainers need affordable energy options,” he said. “The two routes to that are through natural gas expansion, as well as energy efficiency improvements.”
Woodcock said the private market should lead on efforts to boost the energy efficiency of Maine homes.
“How can we push the private market and get banks and investment firms to see the opportunity of rebuilding our housing stock in Maine?” he said. “There’s a lot of programs that the state has right now, and I think we have to re-evaluate all of them and make sure we’re focusing on our constituents in lowering their monthly energy bills.”