Maine Energy Efficiency Receives Two Powerful Boosts, But Needs More

Greg Cunningham | @GregCLF

Image courtesy of shoothead @ flickr

In the past two weeks, Maine’s energy efficiency programs received two significant votes of confidence – votes that will save customers money, will reduce energy use, and help Maine businesses.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) recently recommended approval of a $10 million electricity energy efficiency long term contract to fund a program of the Efficiency Maine Trust’s serving industries such as Maine’s paper mills and other large electric energy consumers. Last week, the PUC unanimously approved the Trust’s Triennial Plan and supported funding for the Trust’s electric efficiency programs that could more than double it from current levels.

Both of these approvals are important steps in the right direction: they reflect the PUC’s recognition of the value of Maine’s energy efficiency programs and the need for more funding to maximize their benefit to ratepayers. Unfortunately, the ultimate decision of how much funding the programs approved by these decisions will receive has been left to the Legislature. This politicization of energy policy results from a combination of flaws in Maine law and our PUC’s willingness to defer to politicians in Augusta.

The long term contract could provide up to $10 million in funding to help some of Maine’s largest electricity consumers to purchase technology and equipment that would reduce their energy consumption, such as more efficient motors and lighting. Historically, this successful program has saved more than three dollars for every dollar invested. In 2012 alone, $4.5 million in grants leveraged over $8.6 million of private investment in these largely industrial facilities, creating jobs associated with the individual efficiency projects but also helping to retain employment at the facilities where the projects were installed through the bottom line benefit of savings on energy costs. See the Efficiency Maine Trust’s 2012 Annual Report here.

The approval of the Trust’s three-year efficiency program plan will allow the Trust to maintain its most effective programs and possibly enhance its biggest programs related to electric efficiency, by increasing funding in this area from current levels of approximately $39 million over the next three years to over $96 million. These programs will decrease the amount of energy used in Maine, saving Maine ratepayers millions of dollars by suppressing the price of electricity, limiting the amount of energy that needs to be purchased and helping avoid the construction of new transmission projects. Equally important, the Trust will be less reliant upon the uncertain and limited federal monies that have funded a large chunk its programs over the past three years. The increased certainty of available funds means efficiency contractors and grant recipients will be more likely to invest in their businesses by hiring new employees and stimulating Maine’s economy.

While we generally applaud these decisions, any successful outcome from them is entirely dependent upon funding approvals from the Legislature. This reliance on our political process to assess the value of programs for Maine ratepayers must change. Our PUC must be more bold and must lead on matters of energy policy. Maine law designates the PUC as the sole authority on energy efficiency long term contracts of the sort requested by the Trust. Consequently, the PUC could and should have not only recommended, but approved, the long term contract without the need for subsequent legislative approval. Similarly, though the PUC is legally required to recommend to the Legislature how much funding is needed to maximize energy efficiency in the state, certain Commissioners appear hesitant exert this authority, as reflected in the Commission’s recent Triennial Plan deliberations. As the state’s energy experts, the PUC must use the full extent of its administrative powers to guide on energy policy, not leave such questions to partisan politics.

Indeed, politics should be removed from energy efficiency funding altogether. To achieve this, the Maine law implemented last year shifting final say on certain energy efficiency funding from the PUC to the Legislature must be amended to direct that authority back to the PUC where it belongs. A bill proposing just such a change will be before the Legislature this session. We encourage our legislators to recognize their limitations in this highly complex regulatory area and to restore this efficiency funding decision-making authority to our energy experts at the PUC. That kind of leadership will help steer Maine on a path to better energy policy.

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