AUGUSTA — A bill aimed at lowering the costs of energy while dramatically changing the way Mainers consume it vaulted out of a key legislative committee on a 12-1 vote Friday.
The vote came after months of hearings, negotiations, compromises and outright wrangling among Democrats, Republicans and Gov. Paul LePage's office over strategic changes to state energy policy. Lawmakers hope these changes will improve Maine's economy by increasing efficiency while diversifying and expanding energy sources.
State Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn, co-chairman of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, said the committee couldn't give up on doing something to tackle the state's energy issues.
"This is not the perfect bill I would have wanted," Cleveland told committee members just prior to the vote. "But I also think this committee has done tremendous work on identifying serious issues in energy for this state. We don't have the luxury of just saying, 'It's too hard,' or, 'It's too difficult,' or, 'It's too political.' We have to make decisions. That's what people sent us here to do."
Cleveland later called the bill "historic" and said he hoped it would gain broad support in the Legislature and from LePage.
The legislation includes parts of more than 13 bills on energy offered by Democratic and Republican lawmakers, as well as the governor.
Patrick Woodcock, director of the governor's energy office, has been involved throughout the process. While he congratulated the committee on doing good work, Woodcock was careful not to give the bill a ringing endorsement.
One key issue was the committee's decision to leave utility rate increases in the hands of the Legislature.
"We are encouraged that the legislation agreed with the governor's request to retain legislative oversight of increasing electric fees," Woodcock said. "One disappointing aspect of the legislation is it does not address wind energy policies whatsoever, including the governor's initiative to ensure that renewable energy policies are consistent for all technologies."
LePage is pushing to remove a 100-megawatt cap in the state's renewable energy portfolio standard. That provision requires most energy facilities to be smaller than 100 megawatts in generating capacity to qualify as renewable and be eligible for credits under the law that aims to increase the power Maine gets from renewables.
Part of that provision carves out an exemption for wind power, allowing those facilities to qualify even if they are larger than 100 megawatts. LePage has argued that the law creates a vastly uneven playing field for power generators in Maine while doing nothing to lower electricity prices.
After the vote on the overall bill Friday, the committee voted to "lay over" a bill that addresses the 100-megawatt-cap issue. The bill would be taken up in the second half of this lawmaking session, which begins in January 2014.
The committee will work through the summer to further study the issue of renewables in Maine's power mix.
Cleveland teamed with Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, on components of the bill that seek to improve Maine's access to natural gas supplies.
Incorporated in the measure was legislation sponsored by Fredette that could see the state partially financing pipeline construction in southern New England so more natural gas can make its way into the regional electricity grid, which would help reduce Maine's rates.
Fredette, the Republican leader in the House, said Friday he was satisfied with the vote.
He credited Cleveland and committee Co-chairman Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, and the other lawmakers on the committee for working out often difficult-to-craft compromises despite philosophical and political divides.
"The accomplishments of the bill, including rate reductions, the opportunity to have the conversation about expanding natural gas pipelines into New England to lower electrical costs and to recognize the need for ongoing conservation, is a classic example of a broad approach to a complex issue," Fredette said.
That conservation includes what could be a huge boost to the Efficiency Maine Trust over the next two years for programs to help industry reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
That's an important provision for environmentalists and members of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said Dylan Voorhees, director of NRCM's Clean Energy and Global Warming Project.
Vorhees has been involved with the legislation throughout the process and said Friday it was a measure his organization could stand behind.
"I'm very pleased it had such strong bipartisan support," Voorhees said. "The things we've been asking for this session in various bills on energy efficiency and the (Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative) were incorporated into the bill. The committee did good work to address those interests."
Voorhees said a substantial increase in energy-efficiency programs in the near term and the long term will help put Maine on pace with other New England states, all of which, except New Hampshire, spend significantly more on reducing consumption and conservation.
The legislation divides up two major energy-related funding sources to do this.
The state receives money from carbon-emission-allowance auctions through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
The federal government has paid Maine $82 million for failing to remove 550 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel that's been stored at the defunct Maine Yankee nuclear plant since the Wiscasset facility closed in 1996.
Fifty-five percent of the Maine Yankee money goes to the Efficiency Maine Trust while the remainder goes directly to consumers in the form of rate reductions.
Efficiency Maine, under the newly crafted bill, would be charged with administering a program suggested by LePage that offers homeowners rebates to help them convert to more efficient home-heating systems.
In addition, the bill would let the Maine Public Utilities Commission order natural gas utilities to connect their pipelines — and pay them to do it — when those additional connections could expand the availability of natural gas in the state.
At least one lawmaker on the committee said the natural gas components of the bill were essential in gaining his support.
Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, said ensuring Maine is better able to access the natural gas resources of the Eastern U.S. was a "no-brainer" for him.
Failing to improve the state's access to that energy resource would be akin to deciding 100 years ago to forgo building electrical infrastructure, he said.
"It would be like the rest of the country is electrifying and you're deciding to keep kerosene lanterns," Harvell said.
The bill faces votes in the House and the Senate before going to LePage's desk. Woodcock couldn't say whether it would gain the governor's support until the governor can examine the final details.
Matthew Stone of the Bangor Daily News contributed to this report.