AUGUSTA, Maine — Heating efficiency and weatherization programs could be reduced in favor of cutting electricity rates for select industries if an energy bill filed by the LePage administration this week becomes law.

Democrats said that while they don’t view solving Maine’s energy problem as a partisan issue and see ample ground for compromise, cutting back on weatherization efforts undermines the best long-term solution to a longer-term problem.

LD 1425, An Act to Create Affordable Heating Options for Maine Residents and Reduce Business Energy Costs, which was printed Tuesday by the Legislature’s Revisor of Statutes, is sponsored by Rep. Larry Dunphy, R-Embden, but originated with the LePage administration. It would divert some revenue to the Efficiency Maine Trust, which is dedicated to helping Mainers’ weatherization and energy-efficiency projects in their homes and businesses, to fund conversions from oil to cheaper forms of heating fuels such as wood pellets, natural gas and propane. It also would authorize the Public Utilities Commission to use some of the trust’s revenue to provide rebates of electricity expenses for targeted businesses and industries. The bill does not specify how much revenue would be diverted nor which businesses or industries it would benefit.

Patrick Woodcock, director of LePage’s energy office, said the bill would provide immediate relief for low-income Mainers who otherwise couldn’t afford a heating system conversion. It also would provide incentives to businesses that will help Maine’s economy, he said.

“Right now most Mainers spend well over $250 a month on heating. Annually that equates to well over $3,000 and we are an absolute outlier with our heating costs,” said Woodcock. “There are options for Mainers to dramatically reduce their heating costs, such as an efficient propane system. Right now there is nothing that provides resources for people to make that conversion and this bill changes that.”

The Efficiency Maine Trust, established in 2009, is funded primarily through a “system benefit charge” assessed on all Maine electricity ratepayers and proceeds from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, which is a system among several states of auctioning carbon dioxide emissions allowances and investing the proceeds to benefit energy consumers.

In 2012, Efficiency Maine spent nearly $24 million on its programs, which was matched by about $36 million in participant contributions. The organization estimated those expenditures created a “lifetime energy benefit” of more than $128 million, according to its annual report.

Democrats have their own bill to alter the Efficiency Maine Trust. Sen. James Boyle, D-Gorham, is preparing a bill that has not yet been printed. It would call on heating fuels wholesalers to voluntarily contribute to Efficiency Maine’s Heating Fuels Efficiency and Weatherization Fund, which would then be matched with RGGI revenues. The fund was previously supported partially by funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but that money dried up last year.

Boyle said he was working on his bill long before he saw LePage’s.

“The governor’s bill would allow people to take money from the Efficiency Maine Trust program and change their heating system,” said Boyle. “They could still have a home leaking like a sieve but now you’re putting a different heating system in it. That just seems to fly in the face of logic. I really think my bill takes a holistic look at helping homeowners be more efficient.”

Boyle said his initial discussions about the concept have indicated that some oil dealers would be interested in contributing to the fund, even though it’s voluntary.

“We want to make it so that they can be part of the solution,” said Boyle. “It will be a missed opportunity if we end up spending less on energy efficiency than we are now.”

Michael Stoddard, executive director of Efficiency Maine, agreed. He said he opposes reducing his organization’s activities when it comes to energy efficiency, but even if that happens he said he’s grateful that LePage’s bill would continue to provide some level of funding.

“This bill is recognizing that those programs are important and that they need to continue to be funded,” said Stoddard. “I think that’s a positive step. The obvious question is, ‘Is there a fixed or shrinking pie or is there an expanding pie so that we can do both electricity programs and heating programs?’”

Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn, is co-chairman of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee. He said he expects his committee to work LePage’s and Boyle’s bills, and perhaps elements from others, into a combined committee bill that he hopes will have widespread support among both Democrats and Republicans.

“It’s not likely that anything will get done if it comes out of the committee as a partisan approval,” said Cleveland. “Looking for common ground is our best solution to enact bills that benefit the people and businesses of Maine.”

Dylan Voorhees, clean energy project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said these two bills, along with another involving natural gas, which was presented last week by House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, could likely end up being the major energy initiatives of the legislative session. He said he saw kernels of merit in LePage’s bill but that energy efficiency will reap more long-term benefits than switching the population to another fuel source.

“Whether it’s oil or natural gas or wood pellets, shouldn’t we want to use less of it?” he asked.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.