To make the most of huge chunks of incoming federal economic-stimulus cash (and to get their hands on more of it in the first place), the Maine Legislature has to ramp up its energy-efficiency planning — on the double. The task isn't as sexy as, say, building majestic wind farms, but it is just as large-scale, in human, economic, and infrastructural terms.
We already know that we have between $60 million and $70 million coming our way from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and some $10 million to $20 million could be available to Maine in additional competitive-grant money. The Act To Secure Maine's Energy Future (LD number not assigned before the Phoenix's deadline), which is supported by majority leadership in both houses and which legislators in Augusta are debating right now, tries to sort out what we'll do with that money when we get it, and how to use it in ways that are best for our wallets, and our environment. The trouble is, even those millions barely scratch the surface of need in Maine, where close to 80 percent of the housing stock (more than 400,000 buildings) is old and inefficient. We need more money — tens of millions more, politicians and industry folks agree. Maine's legislators might be giving good lip service to this crucial issue (efficiency), but they're floundering when it comes to the nitty-gritty (how to afford it).
Maine's biggest energy initiatives right now are geared toward mundane things like better-insulated walls and double-hung windows; investing in those types of measures could meet up to 30 percent of most buildings' energy needs, and could establish 5000 jobs in the state. The Act to Secure Maine's Energy Future focuses on weatherization of Maine's ancient housing stock as a means to increase efficiency. And efficiency, its proponents like to remind us, is the "first fuel" — so called because it is cheaper and more cost-effective than any energy production technology.
The bill, crafted by the Joint Select Committee on Maine's Energy Future last week, and which legislators plan to address before this session ends in mid-June, does several things:
Consolidates Maine's already-existent efficiency programs (Efficiency Maine, the state's Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and a new housing weatherization program) into a unified organization, called the Efficiency Maine Trust, that will oversee efficiency funding and implementation;
Provides efficiency incentives for building owners and renters alike (in the form of rebates and tax credits, mostly);
Authorizes a $30 million bond to retrofit low-income apartments and build new energy-efficient affordable housing (the building plans would be shovel-ready next year, according to legislative leaders);
Reserves some money for training and certification of energy auditors, installers, technicians, and other building-efficiency trade workers at all stages of their careers. So, proponents say, it addresses not just green-collar jobs, but green-collar workers;
Puts off a decision on the somewhat controversial prospect of building an "energy corridor" to transmit electricity from New Brunswick, Canada, to Downeast Maine, a puzzle of which many energy companies want a piece;
Lastly, and not on paper, work on the bill helped to create an informal young-progressive caucus of lawmakers in the State House (see sidebar, "Young Energy"), who are working in concert with youth-oriented organizations such as the League of Young Voters and Opportunity Maine.