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Business and Economy

Public Utilities Commission Approves $42 Million Per Year in Efficiency Spending

State regulators Tuesday approved investing $40-plus million a year to improve energy efficiency in Maine.

There was some wrangling over the budget numbers, and ultimate agreement among most stakeholders, but some conservation groups say the Public Utilities Commission should have done more to save energy consumers money.

Over the next three years, the Efficiency Maine program will spend roughly $42 million a year to help Mainers get the most out of the electricity and natural gas they use. Over time, the investments should net a savings of more than $600 million.

That means subsidies that bring down the shelf price of highly efficient and long-lasting LED lightbulbs, for instance, or rebates for high-efficiency washing machines, or financial help when colleges and hospitals install natural gas generators that produce power — and capture the heat they produce, too.

Efficiency Maine Trust Executive Director Michael Stoddard says that with the end of the fiscal year just two weeks away, the clock was ticking.

“These programs work because contractors — electrical contractors, builders, heating system technicians — go out into the marketplace and talk to their customers who are the homeowners and business owners of Maine about how they can upgrade to high-efficiency equipment,” he says. “So to have this decision now allows us to hit the ground running on July 1st and ensure it’s a smooth transition from one year to the next.”

The spending levels are higher than in the previous three-year period. But the upfront effect on electricity bills will be partly offset by other state revenue sources.

In one case, the state can recoup some money by selling the reduced energy demand that efficiency creates as a commodity in what’s called the Forward Capacity Market.

Commission staff say that in the first year, the efficiency programs will cost the average residential consumer about a dollar a month extra on their electricity bills. And as a rule of thumb, each dollar spent should save about twice that on energy costs in Maine overall.

But Ben Tettlebaum, a staff attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, says that under state law the Commission could and should have authorized millions more in efficiency spending — and reaped hundreds of millions more in savings.

“When we underspend on efficiency, we overspend on generating electricity or drilling for gas. And we overspend that on the poles or wires to get that electricity or gas to consumers,” he says. “So when we invest a little more on energy efficiency we save a lot more on energy costs.”

Asked whether the foundation might take the matter to court, Tettlebaum said the group was considering all its options.

Another environmental group, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, did sign on to the plan, although grudgingly.

The watchdog for Maine electricity consumers, meanwhile, is on board. Public Advocate Tim Schneider says it’s important to focus on programs and initiatives that have a very high likelihood of paying off.

“It’s not true that just spending more money on efficiency is an unqualified good. The process the Commission just went through was about making sure that the money we spend on energy efficiency actually results in benefits, that it’s cost-beneficial,” he says. “We are very confident that the Commission just approved is going to result in programs that save more than they cost.”

And Stoddard says he is pleased with the overall results too.