AUGUSTA, Maine - In his weekly radio address Gov. Paul LePage has returned to a theme he has sounded over the last five years: that Maine’s energy costs are too high and that the Maine Legislature is blocking his efforts to lower them.
There's little dispute over the fact that Maine’s electricity costs are among the highest in the nation, and that consumers bear the brunt. Gov. Paul LePage has proposed a number of changes in state policy that he says would address the cost issue, and in his weekly radio address he again criticizes the Legislature for not doing its part.
"Forty years of liberal policies in Maine are preventing us from taking advantage of low-cost energy, such as clean and affordable hydropower from Quebec and natural gas from Pennsylvania," he says.
The administration's Energy Office director, Patrick Woodcock, says those policies over the years have discouraged the development of cheap renewable hydro-power such as the proposed Dickey-Lincoln dam in Aroostook County and a major hydro project proposed at the Big Ambejackmockamus Falls on the West Branch of the Penobscot River.
Woodcock says the definitions of "renewable" in current energy laws defy logic. "What is renewable? Under the Legislature’s wisdom, 100 megawatts of capacity and below is renewable for hydroelectricity, but if it is 101 and above, it is not renewable."
Woodcock says the definition is aimed at promoting wind power and preventing the import of relatively cheap hydro power from the huge dams operated by Hydro Quebec to meet the minimum requirement of renewable energy sources in state law. He says simply changing that definition would open the possibility of developing in-state facilities and open the doors to imported power from Canada.
But some in Augusta question that strategy. "Paul LePage, with his aggressive style, has not been able to score that deal. I don’t whether it’s even reasonable," says Saco Rep. Barry Hobbins.
Hobbins has co-chaired the Legislature's Utilities, Energy and Technology Committee and was an architect of the omnibus energy law that governs state policy. He says there are no guarantees that Maine would save money on imported power from Hydro Quebec. "State of Vermont are paying market rates. They’re paying more than power costs in the state of Maine to have power come from Hydro Quebec."
Hobbins says it's time for members of both parties in the Legislature, the governor and environmentalists to step back from the political battles and work on real solutions to lower energy costs. He says the governor's study of underutilized hydro dams released last year could be one place to start. "If there are facilities that could be retrofitted with modern equipment, those should be looked at. Those should all be part of the mix."
Energy Office Director Patrick Woodcock agrees, and says he and Gov. LePage are willing to consider any and all options for addressing Maine’s energy needs and costs. He says hydro is being overlooked. "The report showed that there is modest gains that we can have from that. I’ll take modest gains. You know, it's we need to do a whole host of things."
The governor in his radio address pointed to a Saco company, a division of Midwest-based Franklin Fueling Systems, that is closing its manufacturing unit in Maine and shifting 35 jobs to Wisconsin, principally because of lower electricity costs in that state.
At the request of MPBN News, the governor released dozens of letters he has received from companies contacted by his administration concerning energy costs. The businesses are from all over the state and range from small mom-and-pop operations to the huge Irving Corporation to Shipyard Brewing Company, all asking for policy changes aimed at reducing power costs.
Hobbins says the letters should serve as an incentive for all interests to start working together.