The agency that has given shoppers rebates for compact-fluorescent light bulbs and helped factories buy power-saving motors is preparing a plan for spending electricity ratepayers’ money through 2016, and looking for public comment on the plan.
Efficiency Maine Trust, the quasi-independent agency that guides the state’s investment in energy efficiency and conservation, will hold public hearings on its “Triennial Plan” on Wednesday and Thursday in Bangor and South Portland, respectively.
The high cost of energy, driven by rising oil prices, has Mainers looking for more ways to save money. Efficiency Maine’s proposed plan outlines several ways to do that, through baseline funding assumptions and the potential for additional spending that could maximize cost-effective energy savings.
Maine’s share of ratepayer money to pay for energy efficiency and conservation is the lowest in the Northeast, according to Efficiency Maine. It amounts to roughly one-tenth of one cent on every kilowatt hour of electricity used, and generates about $13.5 million a year.
At the hearings, environmental activists are expected to call for an increase in ratepayers’ investment in the program, arguing that it’s the least expensive way to lower electricity bills and create jobs.
But the outlook for increasing ratepayers’ charges is dim. The so-called existing systems benefit charge remains controversial among some officials and politicians, who see it as a tax.
Gov. Paul LePage has openly expressed skepticism about the value of some conservation efforts. His energy director, Kenneth Fletcher, says the governor favors private investment and consumers’ decisions, rather than additional public or ratepayer incentives.
Still, Efficiency Maine can make a compelling case for how it has spent money in its first two years of existence.
On average, its investments have cost about 3 cents for each kilowatt hour saved. That’s less than half what residential customers pay for electricity. If distribution charges are added, it’s just one-fifth the cost.
Most of the savings have come from an aggressive program to subsidize and market compact-fluorescent light bulbs and Energy Star appliances for residential customers, high-efficiency lighting for offices and stores, and high-efficiency motors for industry.
“When policy makers are looking for ways to lower electric bills, we can see that, financially, energy-efficiency should be a key part of the equation,” said Michael Stoddard, the trust’s executive director.
The baseline funding plan that Efficiency Maine will propose at the hearings shows that the range of programs it offers would cost the agency $80.6 million and participants $48.1 million, for a total of $128.7 million over three years. It says that spending would save $416.5 million over time — more than $3 for every dollar spent.
Efficiency Maine and its board of directors came under fire last year for their role in overseeing the practices of the now-defunct Maine Green Energy Alliance, and its use of a federal grant meant to expand home energy audits and weatherization.
Questions raised in media reports about the origins of the alliance, its spending and hiring practices and apparent links to the Democratic Party led to legislative scrutiny by Republicans.
A state investigation into the group’s financial practices revealed poor accounting but no missing money or inappropriate spending. It also showed that, beyond the energy alliance issue, the trust’s performance on its central mission could stand up to intense scrutiny.
“There’s no political agenda, no partisan agenda,” Stoddard said.
Fletcher, who serves on the trust’s board, said he believes the trust is doing a good job overall. It’s meeting its mandate to focus on cost-effective programs that can be measured and verified.
But the long-term goal, he said, should be to create just enough incentive to persuade businesses and residents to make energy investments on their own.
The success of the compact-fluorescent bulb program is an example, Fletcher said. The payback is so fast, he said, that consumers should be buying them without ratepayer-funded discounts.
“It becomes an ideological discussion,” he said. “Should we use someone else’s money to help get a two-year payback?”
Fletcher said he expects the LePage administration to support continued funding of Efficiency Maine under baseline revenue assumptions, which is expected to be roughly $20 million in 2013-14 — but no more.
That sum would scale back what Efficiency Maine was able to offer over the past two years, thanks to a total of $93 million in federal stimulus money. It helped weatherize 3,212 homes and replace 2,614 heating systems, among other things.
That era has ended, but Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said it makes economic sense for ratepayers to contribute more to expand energy efficiency and conservation.
Previous Efficiency Maine programs have helped homeowners cut energy bills by 35 percent, according to the council, but most residents weren’t able to participate before the stimulus money ran out.
At a news conference in Bangor after Wednesday’s hearing, the council is expected to make a case for maximum investments in cost-effective conservation programs. Voorhees will be joined by a weatherization contractor and a commercial efficiency equipment installer, among other advocates.
Comments from the hearings will be used to help refine the plan later this year. A final version must be approved by the trust’s board and the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: