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LePage Wants Energy Policy Changes

AUGUSTA, Maine — Just two days after his re-election, Gov. Paul LePage sat down with reporters and said that he has two big items on his agenda for this legislative session: tax reform and energy policy. Just this week the governor introduced four more pieces of legislation aimed at reshaping the state's energy policy, with an eye toward lowering the cost.

Energy policy can be an incredibly complicated endeavor. But state energy office Director Patrick Woodcock says the goal is pretty simple.

"The actual policy that we should be looking for in our state is lower pollution, lower cost," he says. "Any type of technology that can deliver those results should be promoted."

And that, Woodcock says, includes doing away with what's called the renewable portfolio standard, a provision in current law that requires electricity providers to demonstrate that a certain percentage of their supply comes from renewable sources.

But on this and other proposals, the administration faces vocal opposition. Dylan Voorhees of the Natural Resources Council of Maine says elimination of the renewable portfolio standard is extreme and ill advised.

"This bill takes a wrecking ball to our clean energy policies that have been thoughtfully established in a bipartisan manner over the last decade," he says.

Voorhees says that requiring part of the energy used by Mainers come from renewable sources, including wind and solar, is crucial to moving the state away from its dependence on fossil fuels, which cause pollution and are subject to serious fluctuations in cost.

Rep. Mark Dion, a Democrat from Portland, co-chairs the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee. And he says he made a pledge to the business community at the start of the session.

"We need to be predictable and consistent and we can't turn the ship on a dime and this would in fact do just that," he says. "And I think it would put a lot of business initiatives and potential and existing investments in jeopardy."

But while that proposal faces clear opposition, another part of the governor's plan may garner more support. It would allow the state regulators to select a firm to act as an agent for very small solar providers. Dion says there are other similar measures before his committee that are aimed at this sector of the energy landscape.

"Distributed generation that is aggregated is techno-speak for solar farms or a community solar initiative, I think that is the most reachable application of that concept," he says.

Several other energy initiatives from the governor have been tried before and did not garner legislative support. Among them, his proposal to use revenue from the sale of wood from public lands to fund low-income energy-efficiency programs is not expected to get much traction.

The governor has also proposed legislation aimed at helping large users of natural gas to obtain long-term contracts for lower-cost fuel. Voorhees doesn't like that proposal either.

"Providing a backstop or a loan guarantee to an individual business, whether it is one or two, probably doesn't meet that test of whether it is broadly beneficial to ratepayers," he says.

Another measure from the administration would take any payments to Maine from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative Trust and direct them to businesses rather than to energy efficiency programs, which Woodcock says is a better way to make the most of that money.

"Currently all the money is going to the Efficiency Maine Trust for energy efficiency projects, and the governor's policy is saying, 'Let's return this to the businesses and let them make the decisions about what is best for them,'" he says.

Not surprisingly, Voorhees doesn't like that idea either. He says efficiency programs provide a bigger return to businesses than would simply directing cash to go to their bottom line. He says studies have shown a $5 return for every dollar invested in efficiency.

Dion says while some of the governor's proposals deserve discussion, he doubts they can all be considered by the time the session ends next month, and that means some may be carried over to next January.