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A kick-start for conservation

But Maine's new energy plan may not go far enough
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  May 20, 2009

conservation main

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.

Read: Young Energy. By Deirdre Fulton

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.

"This is an opportunity to dramatically change the way that we think about energy in the state of Maine, and how we prepare to make ourselves energy independent," says State Senate Majority Leader Phil Bartlett, a Gorham Democrat in his early 30s. "We really think this is a bold step toward dramatically changing the way we do things in this state."

Of course, as with so many legislative initiatives, this "bold step" involves a lot of baby ones, including the creation of a "study group" (given Maine's record on study-group follow-through, that term should make us cringe), and a stalling strategy that delays decision-making on the important question of paying for all the ideas it proposes.

"There are a lot of moving parts and competing interests," Bartlett says, and it seems that some provisions of the bill were written to avoid controversy rather than tackle those competing interests head-on.

For example, on the complicated issue of money: The new efficiency entity, Efficiency Maine Trust, has three years to develop a way to pay for ongoing efficiency-improvement projects around the state. In 2011, the Legislature will be required to consider the Trust's recommendations. Simultaneously, a separate study group will convene to examine energy-transmission issues, how building new transmission lines in Maine will impact the cost of electricity for homes and businesses and how Mainers can best benefit from leasing public land to energy companies for transmission lines. That group will report to the Legislature next session. Here, too, with so many self-interested parties involved, the creation of a study group seems like something of a stalling tactic.

Not surprisingly, there are those who don't think the bill goes far enough.

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Related: Maine task force to seek offshore power, Maine House candidates, Hey guv: stop slashing!, More more >
  Topics: News Features , American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Domestic Policy, Economic Policy,  More more >
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