Maine’s most-contentious energy policy battle in recent years took place last spring, when Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a wide-ranging solar bill and the Legislature failed to override the veto by two votes. Many politicians and lobbyists sought to influence the governor on this issue.
But the voice he heard most clearly may have come from a 63-year-old, self-taught refrigeration technician, whom LePage met at a Bangor radio station when he first ran for office seven years ago.
“The governor called me and said, ‘What do you think – should I veto it?’ ” said James LaBrecque, relating the solar bill story last week. “I said I could support that. He asked me why. I gave him my explanation.”
LaBrecque added: “The governor looks strictly at the numbers. He doesn’t care what’s inside the black box. He just wants to know the impact on the public.”
LePage’s opposition to solar energy is widely known, illustrated this month in his condemnation of his own appointees to the Public Utilities Commission, for approving a rooftop solar compensation rule that he sees as hurting low-income residents. What’s less understood is how LaBrecque, who acts as the governor’s unpaid “technical adviser” on energy matters, has helped harden LePage’s views on renewable energy.
LePage elevated LaBrecque’s profile last week when he suggested that he might nominate him to replace one of the PUC commissioners, whose term is up next month. In the next breath, though, LePage mused that it would be difficult to get that nomination confirmed in the Legislature.
LaBrecque later clarified that the governor knows he’s not interested in the job. Caring for his special-needs adult son and his Bangor business, Flexware Control Technology, rule that out. Besides, LaBrecque said, he’s “too aggressive, too much like the governor,” to function in a bureaucracy.
But LaBrecque said he’s likely to start a paid, part-time position later this year to formally represent the governor in pushing his energy agenda. He said it would be separate from the Governor’s Energy Office, which is functioning with an acting director since Patrick Woodcock left last fall.
LaBrecque’s relationship with the governor is frustrating for renewable-power advocates. LaBrecque has the freedom to promote what they see as an extreme, anti-solar and anti-wind agenda in the name of the governor, but without any accountability.
“Who is he speaking for, and when?” asked Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association. “He clearly wants people to know he’s speaking for the governor.”
That freedom has come from a bond and a trust between LePage and LaBrecque. LePage grew up poor and, as LaBrecque did, bettered himself in retail business. Both are of the same generation and were raised in strong Franco-American cultures. Both men are passionate about lowering energy costs for Mainers and have limited patience for polished experts and opposing viewpoints. LePage, through his spokeswoman, declined to comment for this story, but a former state employee who worked with both men called them “kindred spirits.”
LaBrecque put it this way: “We hit it off because we both had a sense of each other, that we really care about doing good for the people of this state, and that we both lived in the real world.”
Both men also are skilled at using conservative talk radio to communicate. LaBrecque has a biweekly show about energy on WVOM-FM in Bangor, which he uses as a vehicle to disseminate LePage’s energy views to a wider audience. That is where they met by chance in 2010, and it’s the same station on which LePage last week floated the idea of naming LaBrecque to the PUC.
Earlier this month, LaBrecque told host Ric Tyler how upset LePage was with the PUC’s ruling on solar compensation, how the agency had been worn down by lawyers and special-interest groups and why you don’t see solar panels on trailers.
“Poor people get poorer, and rich people get solar,” LaBrecque said of financial incentives for solar.
HYDRO AND HEAT PUMPS
LaBrecque has identified Maine’s high home heating costs and dependence on oil as the state’s top energy problem. And he has a solution: Heat pumps and more heat pumps.
LaBrecque’s refrigeration background made him an early adopter of the superefficient, electric heating and cooling units. LaBrecque has gotten LePage excited about heat pumps, so much so that the governor had them installed at the Blaine House in 2014. His administration has supported policies and rebates that have helped put 20,000 ductless heat pumps into Maine homes and businesses over the past three years.
Now LaBrecque has a larger plan to cut oil dependence in the long term. It’s a work in progress, but he hopes it will lead to the governor submitting a bill to the Legislature. The idea is to import power from Hydro Quebec to run heat pumps. Consumption would be recorded through a separate meter, via the internet, so customers can be charged a lower rate.
Critics say this concept ignores several realities. They include the fact that Hydro Quebec exports power at market rates, not the discount given by law to provincial customers; that transmission lines are costly to build and face public opposition; and that it would ship billions of dollars out of the state’s economy that could instead support local power generation.
“Jim has one lens through which he views energy policy and that’s heat pumps,” said Payne. “There appears to be a willingness to ignore facts and data from other states, which see a role in having an energy mix.”
Clean-energy advocates like heat pumps. But they also see value in using a mix of local, renewable generation, such as solar and wind, to power heat pumps, as well as an expected transition to electric vehicles and home battery storage. ReVision Energy, the state’s largest solar installer, also is a major installer of heat pumps. Fortunat Mueller, a co-founder of ReVision, said he agrees with the need to electrify more of the economy, but not by investing in interstate transmission, which now is the biggest driver of high energy bills.
“How can the solution to that problem possibly be buying more electricity from far away that requires more transmission lines to get to market?” Mueller asked.
SUBSIDIES AND SAVINGS
LaBrecque grew up in Jay and graduated from Mt. Blue High School in Farmington. His formal education ended at a tech school in Boston, after which he bought a van and started Jim’s Refrigeration. His views about energy have been shaped more by the laws of thermodynamics than bills in the Maine Legislature. He learned a lesson in the early 1970s, he said, after building a parabolic solar panel with a friend and noting the difference between heat and temperature.
“A match will burn you, but it won’t heat a room,” he said of his conclusion that solar just didn’t produce enough useful energy to run refrigerators.
Instead, he refined a technology to make supermarket refrigerators use half the energy, in part by capturing waste heat.
“He walked into Don’s A.G. (a former Farmington food store) and said, ‘Can I look at your compressors?’ ” recalled Tom Eastler, professor emeritus at the University of Maine at Farmington and a longtime friend. “Jimmy told him, you’re wasting energy and money, and wound up saving them more than $100,000. He did the same thing at Tranten’s store in Kingfield.”
Eastler is one of LaBrecque’s posse of older, experienced experts who make up an informal energy adviser team. Among them was Richard Hill, an icon in energy circles and longtime University of Maine mechanical engineering professor, who died last year at 97. Hill and LaBrecque would meet for lunch and solve the world’s energy problems through technology.
This engineering focus has led LaBrecque to question energy projects that have subsidies from taxpayers or utility customers, a familiar theme for the governor. But critics say this stance can be hypocritical and narrow-minded. Two examples:
The stampede to heat pumps in Maine has been encouraged by $500 rebates from Efficiency Maine Trust. In LaBrecque’s view, the money is not a rebate. It’s a de facto loan, because over time the trust will get that money back through utility transmission and distribution charges that help fund the trust.
But Payne, the renewable energy lobbyist, said he doesn’t buy this argument.
“With the saturation of heat pumps in the marketplace, why are we doing any rebates?” he asked. “The governor always says, ‘If an industry can’t stand on its own two feet, it should fail.’ ”
LaBrecque also is critical of the offshore wind power research that has brought millions of dollars in federal research money to the University of Maine. He’s frustrated he can’t get details about how much power was generated by the one-eighth-scale test turbine anchored off Castine in 2013. He suspects it’s not much.
“How credible would you find someone that took a million dollars for research to improve the efficiency of a car engine, and after claiming it was a major success, he could not tell you how many miles per gallon he got?” LaBrecque complained.
LaBrecque, however, seems to overlook the fact that the testing was focused on the floating platform, not electric output from the conventional turbine. The research is aimed at commercial development of affordable platforms for full-size offshore wind farms, capable of holding 400 tons of spinning blades 395 feet above the water during a hurricane.
In the wake of the PUC’s solar ruling, look for LaBrecque to be testifying this winter in the Legislature’s committee that handles energy matters against any bills that attempt to expand solar incentives. He’s known to deliver strident missives on the expense and inefficiency of solar, the influence of special-interest groups and the decades of wasted investment by government. By his calculations, solar is cost-effective only for roadside traffic signs and off-the-grid camps.
His position, shared by the governor, overlooks national and regional trends. For the third year, more than half of the new generating capacity in America in 2016 was made up of renewable generation, notably wind and solar, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.
In New England, solar energy is expected to supply roughly 3 percent of power each year by 2025, and serve more than 20 percent of the demand during peak daytime periods in the spring and fall, according to the latest calculations by ISO-New England, the region’s power grid operator.
But if LaBrecque’s influence continues as it has over the past six years, expect LePage to dig in against wind and solar, and launch a new push to bring Canadian hydro power into Maine.
“There’s nothing else on the horizon that will be more cost-effective to get us off oil than hydro power from Quebec running heat pumps,” LaBrecque said.
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