As lawmakers, we do our best work when we put our political labels aside and work for the people of Maine. And while talk of the budget battle and a government shutdown that never materialized dominated much of the conversation in Augusta over the past few months, the 126th Legislature should be remembered for the extraordinary work it did on one of the state’s biggest challenges: energy policy.
Maine’s energy problems have been long in the making.
It may be difficult to imagine now, but late last January, as temperatures were barely getting out of the single digits in the day and dipping below zero at night, New England states came perilously close to facing rolling electricity blackouts. With furnaces working at full capacity to keep pace with the bitter cold, rolling blackouts would have, at the very least, led to cold homes, the possibility of freezing pipes, and loss of revenue for our businesses.
Fortunately, it didn’t happen. But according to Independent System Operator New England, which manages the flow of electricity into Maine, we were about three hours away from it. With the hot weather now here, one wonders whether the prospect of rolling blackouts will surface once again as air conditioners put their own strain on our electrical grid.
Energy policy tends to be a very complicated subject, but the reason we find ourselves in this position is simple: We have a limited amount of energy at our disposal, and the energy that we do have is too expensive. To reduce our carbon footprint, we have moved away from coal and oil as energy sources and now rely heavily on natural gas to produce electricity.
The problem is Maine has inadequate capacity to deliver natural gas to homes and businesses. At the same time, demand for it is skyrocketing, resulting in high prices. Maine currently has an enormous “basis differential,” the difference between the cost of natural gas at the hub and what it costs at its final delivery destination.
Energy costs in Maine are among the highest in the nation and are continually cited as one of the biggest reasons companies do not want to locate here or choose to leave the state.
Republicans, Democrats and independents agree that this has been one of Maine’s biggest obstacles.
That’s why I am proud to be among a bipartisan group of legislators who helped come up with a solution.
The omnibus energy bill, which has now become law, combines about a dozen different energy bills into one to address priorities from the governor’s office and Republican and Democratic legislators by reducing the cost of energy in Maine, cutting back on greenhouse emissions and making money available to insulate Maine homes.
The new law, when implemented, will increase natural gas capacity in the state. This will be achieved by allowing the Public Utilities Commission to purchase gas line transmission capacity — not to exceed 200 million cubic feet per day — and then enter into contracts with natural gas companies to connect to underserved areas of Maine. By giving those providers an incentive to expand their reach into Maine, we will be able to avoid the natural gas bottlenecks that occur when demand is the highest.
Another part of the bill would provide additional funding to Efficiency Maine Trust to help companies cut back on greenhouse emissions and give rebates to homeowners who switch from oil to natural gas or other more efficient heating systems.
It also provides funding to help homeowners improve insulation. Efficiency Maine estimates those who take advantage of it could save an average of $560 a year on heating costs and $5,600 over a 10-year period.
With so many different interests involved in the passage of the energy bill, it took many unexpected twists and turns along the way before being signed into law.
Gov. Paul LePage initially vetoed it because it didn’t include a provision that would allow the University of Maine to compete for electric ratepayer support for an offshore wind project. When a separate energy bill was amended to allow UMaine to bid on the project, the governor decided to support the energy bill.
What we have accomplished in passing this landmark bill is extraordinary. It represents a major step toward reducing the high energy costs that have held Maine back for so long, and I could not be more proud of my fellow legislators for making it happen.
Sen. Ed Youngblood, R-Brewer, is the ranking Republican on the Energy, Utilities, and Technology Committee.