"This is an opportunity to dramatically change the way that we think about energy in the state of Maine, and how we prepare to make ourselves energy independent," says State Senate Majority Leader Phil Bartlett, a Gorham Democrat in his early 30s. "We really think this is a bold step toward dramatically changing the way we do things in this state."
Of course, as with so many legislative initiatives, this "bold step" involves a lot of baby ones, including the creation of a "study group" (given Maine's record on study-group follow-through, that term should make us cringe), and a stalling strategy that delays decision-making on the important question of paying for all the ideas it proposes.
"There are a lot of moving parts and competing interests," Bartlett says, and it seems that some provisions of the bill were written to avoid controversy rather than tackle those competing interests head-on.
For example, on the complicated issue of money: The new efficiency entity, Efficiency Maine Trust, has three years to develop a way to pay for ongoing efficiency-improvement projects around the state. In 2011, the Legislature will be required to consider the Trust's recommendations. Simultaneously, a separate study group will convene to examine energy-transmission issues, how building new transmission lines in Maine will impact the cost of electricity for homes and businesses and how Mainers can best benefit from leasing public land to energy companies for transmission lines. That group will report to the Legislature next session. Here, too, with so many self-interested parties involved, the creation of a study group seems like something of a stalling tactic.
Not surprisingly, there are those who don't think the bill goes far enough.
Portland Democratic representative Jon Hinck, for example, cites "the failure in this case to muster resources." While he praises the measure overall, "the disappointing part of the bill is the apparent unwillingness of a majority of legislators to find a way to create a revenue stream." When the bill was being considered by the joint select energy committee, Hinck put forward an amendment that would have put a 2-cent-per-gallon fee on home heating oil; that money would have gone toward efficiency measures. The amendment didn't garner sufficient support at that point, but he is considering reintroducing it when the entire House discusses the bill next week. As for the mandate for the trust to come up with a funding mechanism by 2011, he says, "not much will have changed by then in terms of what we know [about how to pay for these types of projects and proposals]. I would argue that we shouldn't wait."
So would the folks at Opportunity Maine, a Portland-based non-profit best known for their work in securing a student-loan tax break for Maine graduates who stay in the state when they finish school. OppME staff wrote and issued a report earlier this year outlining the economic benefits of weatherization and energy efficiency.
"The chief factor driving efficiency gains is level of efficiency investment," the report reads, noting that Maine's "system benefit charges" (i.e., money that consumers pay in their utility bills that fund efficiency programs) are the lowest in New England. Vermont (which has, arguably, New England's strongest efficiency program) charges three times as much as Maine does. The report stresses the importance of job training, as opposed to mere job creation. "Maine can lower its energy costs, create thousands of good-paying middle skill jobs and create a $300 million annual market opportunity for Maine businesses," the report continues. "But any energy market transformation strategy has to include a strong business, community and workforce development component."