LePage bill to change Maine’s wind-energy policy moves tentatively forward

Source: SCOTT THISTLE, State Politics Editor, Maine Sun Journal • Posted: Monday, March 10, 2014

AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage’s initiative to overhaul Maine’s wind-energy production goals to require ratepayer benefits and manufacturing jobs gained tentative approval in the Legislature’s Energy Committee on Friday.

But the bill, LD 1791, sponsored by state Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, saw significant revisions, including allowing a section of current law to stand, prior to the 6-2 vote to approve the measure.

Initially, the bill would have erased from Maine law specific goals by year for installed wind energy capacity, but an amendment made by Harvell on Friday left those goals intact, including one for 2015 on which the state has not even reached the halfway point.

Under current law, the state’s goal is to have 2,000 megawatts of installed wind energy by the end of next year, but according to industry officials, so far the state has only 676 megawatts of operating wind turbines. Another 150 megawatts are under construction.

The bill as amended adds new criteria to the state’s wind-energy goals, including one that says new grid-scale wind power projects in Maine must show how they will reduce the price of electricity, create jobs and bolster the state’s manufacturing industries prior to approval for construction by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Five Democratic lawmakers who were absent Friday will have until noon Tuesday, March 11, to cast their votes on the measure. That could change whether the committee sends a recommendation for or against the bill to the House of Representatives later this month.

Lawmakers supporting the bill seemed to agree with LePage that Maine ratepayers should benefit more from wind-energy projects. Those opposing the measure said the Legislature would be making piecemeal policy while creating subjective requirements and destabilizing the regulatory environment for wind-energy investors.

“I don’t think it hurts to add some additional guidelines of things to be looking for, such as increasing jobs in manufacturing and so on,” said state Rep. Bobbi Beavers, D-South Berwick. “It would be nice if we made our own turbines and used technology from our university and so on. I would love to see that.”

Beavers said LePage’s bill included “worthy goals,” although they were not necessarily things that could be quantified.

Rep. Larry Dunphy, R-Embden, said LePage’s Energy Office has produced studies and has made recommendations in the past that have been ignored by the Democratic majority.

“To kick this down the road, and let’s talk about a study, we have a study, we have the information in our hands; we fail to be using it,” said Dunphy who supported the proposed changes.

Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn, the committee’s Senate chairman, along with House Chairman Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, were the only two to vote against the change. Both lawmakers were instrumental in working with LePage’s staff last session to usher through a landmark energy bill that sets the stage to expand natural gas in Maine.

Cleveland said evolving energy technologies all come with different circumstances and to encourage different energy technologies to take root and grow often requires varying policies.

“The whole picture coming together creates a reliable and cost-effective technology that moves us away from more volatile, expensive petro fuels to fuels that are more diversified, that are cleaner and that are more renewable in the long term,” Cleveland said.

He said the new requirements LePage wants to add to the law were not specific and may be construed as creating a negative dialogue around energy policy.

Cleveland seemed to agree that Maine’s goals now in the law are overly ambitious and “do not give enough clarity on what we are really trying to accomplish.”

He said adding another layer of regulation to those goals would not create that clarity.

“What we should be meeting is what is the right mix over time in regards to the portion of wind power as opposed to knowing a number we should have,” Cleveland said. “But I don’t want to create some more ambiguity, as opposed to more clarity on what we want for public policy.”

He said the proposed change did not represent “a step forward but only another opportunity to have confrontation. That doesn’t move the interests of the people of this state forward in my mind, I wish it did, but it doesn’t.”