LePage critical of energy efficiency efforts

Posted Dec. 08, 2011, at 6:50 p.m.
Gov. Paul LePage
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Gov. Paul LePage

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage says efficiency and conservation should be part of the strategy to reduce Maine’s overdependence on oil for home heating, but he is critical of the way those efforts are being implemented.

“Conservation is just another word for a Ponzi scheme in many respects,” he said in an interview. “What I mean by that, it is not that conservation is bad, conservation is very, very good if you do it properly.”

LePage specifically criticized the home energy audit programs required by Efficiency Maine. He said anyone can get an audit, even if unable to implement the recommendations.

“If they are recommending $15,000 in improvements and a person can’t make that much of an investment, it is all a waste,” he said. “That’s where the policy is not working and we are going to work on that.”

Dylan Voorhees of the Natural Resources Council of Maine said the governor’s use of the Ponzi analogy is unfortunate and not really applicable. He said if the governor’s criticism is that audits are required to participate in Efficiency Maine programs, there are many good reasons for that policy.

A Ponzi scheme is an investment fraud that involves the payment of purported returns to existing investors from funds contributed by new investors, according to the federal Securities and Exchange Commission.

“Having an audit or a home energy assessment is a really important tool for helping provide good information to homeowners about how they can reduce their heating bills,” Voorhees said.

He said it makes good sense to have an energy audit to show that a new furnace or insulation or other efficiency measure will result in enough reduced heating costs to warrant the investment. He said there is no doubt that energy efficiency efforts will save homeowners money.

LePage said he is concerned there are not enough low-interest loans available to help homeowners convert their heating systems or weatherize their homes. He said he urged community bankers when he met with them last month to develop loan programs to help Maine reduce its use of oil. Maine oil consumption for for home heating is among the highest in the country.

“We already have such loan programs,” said Voorhees. “We have a great program, the PACE program, at Efficiency Maine that is providing low-interest loans.”

The revolving loan fund was started with a $20 million federal grant under the federal Recovery Act. Homeowners may borrow up to $15,000 at a fixed rate of 4.99 percent APR for up to 15 years.

“The quickest way to reduce energy costs is to use less energy,” said Rep. Stacey Fitts, R-Pittsfield, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee. “There is no doubt of that. I have said the best thing we could do is wrap the state in pink,” referring to the pink color of most rolls of insulation commonly used to insulate homes.

He said the Legislature already has taken a number of steps to help Mainers weatherize their homes and to move toward alternative heating systems.

“Of course we could do more but it will cost more and I don’t know where we would get the money,” Fitts said.

He said proposals to tax oil in order to generate funds for weatherization have not garnered much support. He said he would prefer a private-sector solution, but realizes government also has a role.

Sen. Phil Bartlett, D-Gorham, the Democratic senator on the committee, agreed with Fitts on the importance of weatherization and the steps the state already has taken. He suggested the governor is right if he believes the state should do more to encourage weatherization.

“In addition to loans, we could provide some grants to make weatherization more affordable and attractive for people,” he said. “There may be some additional tax incentives that we could do if you could come up with the funding.”

Bartlett said it will take more investment by state government and by individual Mainers to weatherize homes throughout the state. He said it is difficult for folks to pay for living expenses let alone find the money to invest in weatherization that will save them money in the long run.

LePage did not spell out what legislative initiatives he would make to improve the energy audit process and weatherization efforts, but he said there are proposals in the works.

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