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LePage pushes to eliminate Maine’s renewable energy portfolio standard

Gov. Paul LePage says it’s time to wean Maine off its dependence on oil, and turn instead to natural gas. And in remarks to a group of business people at the Cumberland Club in Portland last night, the governor said Maine should stop using oil to heat homes–period. The governor also reiterated his goal to eliminate the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard as a way to be more attractive to business.

As he has repeatedly emphasized since hitting the campaign trail, Gov. LePage says the cost of energy in Maine is too high–on average 42 percent above the national average for electricity. The governor says that puts Maine in the unenviable position of having the 12th highest energy costs in the nation. And he thinks he knows why: the renewable energy portfolio standard, or RPS.

“The state of Maine has the highest renewable portfolio in the country,” he said. “We started in January at 34 percent. The Legislature pushed it so that in 10 years it will be 44 percent. It increases one percent a year.”

That means that right now about a third of Maine’s electricity must come from renewable energy resources. Maine is one of about two dozen states, plus the District of Columbia, that have RPS policies in place. But Gov. LePage says Maine’s renewable energy requirement puts it at a competitive disadvantage against other states competing for business.

“The next closest to us is Massachusetts, at 20 percent, and we can’t compete with states like Wisconsin, Wyoming, Nevada, Nebraska, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee,” he said. “So we need to get rid of the renewable portfolio. We need to reduce that.”

Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, says Maine actually has the lowest electricity costs in New England. And he says there’s a reason some of those states have lower energy costs than Maine.

“Primarily that’s because we don’t have deposits of coal, oil, gas. We don’t have a nuclear plant in Maine anymore and we don’t have large, federally subsidized hydropower projects,” Payne says.

The Maine Renewable Energy Association represents energy producers, from hydro, biomass, wind, tidal and waste-to-energy companies. Payne says it seems premature for the governor to revisit the issue of reducing or eliminating the Renewable Portfolio Standard when the Legislatue just considered the governor’s request to freeze it in May.

The issue proved so complex and controversial that even the Maine Chamber of Commerce declined to take a position, saying its potential passage could mean “different things to different parts of the business community.”

Dylan Voorhees of the Natural Resources Council of Maine says another debate on the subject would be unfortunate, given how popular he says renewable energy is with the public and with business.

“Maine’s renewable energy policies are working, in seeing major investments in clean energy in Maine,” he says. “That’s helping our economy in general. And the Public Utilities Commission has reported that the costs of that are incredibly small: 35 cents on an average household monthly bill that costs $70 or $75.”

Over the past decade, says Jeremy Payne, the renewable energy industry has invested more than $2 billion in Maine facilities. He says jobs and investment could be put in peril by any move to reverse direction.

For his part, the governor seems to embrace some, but not all, of the economic arguments for renewable energy. “I’m not against wind. I’m not against solar. I’m certainly not against tidal. I’m not against natural gas. But I’m against those that add costs to our electricity bills–that’s what I’m against,” he said.

LePage told the audience he supports the building of every wind farm in the state. He’ll even help with construction. But he says he doesn’t want to pay for the electricity.

And to gauge whether Mainers agree with him, the governor says he plans to offer Maine consumers a green energy standard, in addition to the traditional standard offer on electric bills. “And I’m anxious to see how many people step up to the plate and pay for the high-cost energy,” he said. “Because if the majority do, then I’ll back off and we’ll go green all the way.”