AUGUSTA – A partisan battle is emerging over a bill that scales back a state law that requires 10 percent of Maine’s electricity by 2017 to come from renewable energy, such as wind power.
Supporters say the bill would lower Maine’s energy costs and allow the state’s manufacturers to be more competitive. Opponents warn that the bill represents a major shift in Maine’s energy policy and would drive away investment for wind, tidal and biomass projects in the state.
Introduced by Gov. Paul LePage last week, L.D. 1570 would require that four percent of Maine’s electricity come from renewable energy sources. This is the level that power companies must be at now according to current law.
The bill would also require the Maine Public Utilities Commission to get the approval of the Legislature before requiring a power company like Central Maine Power to enter into a long-term contract for energy supplies. Long-term contracts are designed to make electricity prices more stable.
Signs of party difference over the bill become apparent on Tuesday at a public hearing at the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee. Several of the Republicans on the committee had tense exchanges with some of those who testified in opposition to the bill.
Sen. Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, who co-chairs the committee, told Paul Williamson, director of the Maine Wind Industry Initiative, that it wasn’t right for the government to be subsidizing the wind industry at the expense of other industries, which must pay higher electrical costs because power companies are forced to buy electricity produced by alternative energy.
“Aren’t you concerned about the jobs it will cost other manufacturers in the state to buy that product?” Thibodeau asked.
Williamson replied that the state’s current energy policy has attracted a $1 billion investment over the last four years and could bring in addition $16 billion in the next few years.
“Aren’t you talking about jumping over dollars to chase nickels?” Williamson asked Thibodeau.
Republican Reps. Larry Dunphy of Embden and Aaron Libby of Waterboro also complained about public subsidies for alternative energy.
Nine the 13 members on the committee are serving on the committee for the first time. One of the veterans, Sen. Philip Bartlett, a Democrat from Gorham, in an interview after the meeting said that Maine’s current energy policies were put in place with bipartisan support but that some of the new Republicans on the committee have brought an ideological point of view to the issue.
He said that the bill’s passage would send a message to alternative energy investors that Maine’s regulatory climate is unstable.
“This would be a dramatic change and departure of a policy that Republicans and Democrats have supported for the last six or eight years,” Bartlett said.
John Ferland, project developer for Portland-based Ocean Renewable Power Company, warned that the bill would end the emerging tide-energy industry in Maine. He said Maine is already recognized as a national leader in the industry and has the best tidal energy resources on the East Coast.
The bill, he said, “would yank the rug out” of the entire ocean-energy industry.
The goal of the bill is to lower the price of electricity for Maine consumers, said Kenneth Fletcher, director of the governor’s Office of Energy Independence and Security.
The price of electricity in Maine is significantly higher than the national average, creating an obstacle to attracting investment and creating jobs, Fletcher said.
Keeping the current rate of renewable energy use at four percent and forgoing the six percent increase could save ratepayers as much as $42 million over the next six years, he said.
Several opponents of wind energy spoke in favor of the bill.
Chris O’Neil, a lobbyist for Friends of Maine’s Mountains, said that wind energy advocates that warn that the bill would dry up investment in Maine are engaging in hyperbole.
He said the that Maine’s incentives for alternative energy account for a small fraction of the government subsides that benefit wind power projects in the state.
“It is interesting to see an industry that has had carte blanche for years panic when someone tries to take a nibble out of them.” O’Neil said.
The committee is scheduled to debate the bill on Friday and vote on the same today.
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