Renewable energy emerged Thursday as an early issue in this year’s race for governor, and it was immediately clear that voters will have stark choices in November between the energy policies of the three major candidates.

In speeches at unrelated events, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, the Democrats’ candidate, fully embraced renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power, while Republican Gov. Paul LePage derided “green energy” as too costly for consumers and driving the loss of manufacturing jobs.

Eliot Cutler, who is running as an independent, did not deliver an energy policy speech Thursday but provided a statement to the Portland Press Herald in support of renewable energy, calling climate change “the greatest environmental challenge of our time.”

Michaud made his remarks at a news conference in South Portland as Environment Maine, a political advocacy group, issued a report saying that state and federal policies are reducing carbon emissions. The report says policies such as renewable energy standards, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and the clean cars program reduced carbon pollution by at least 600,000 metric tons in 2012 – roughly the annual emissions from 125,000 cars.

Michaud called solar energy a key component of breaking Maine’s dependence on home heating oil, which he wants to cut in half by 2030, and of reducing the carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. The state gets more sunshine than any other New England state, he said, yet it is “dead last” in harnessing solar energy.

“Solar energy can be as common in Maine homes as wood stoves,” Michaud said. “Our state can be at the forefront of steering our nation toward cleaner, renewable sources of energy.”

Michaud also touted weatherization and energy-efficiency efforts.

“We all know that climate change is real,” he said. “We all know about its devastating impacts on the air we breathe, the water we drink, our public health, our lands and oceans.”

Meanwhile in Hallowell, LePage used a meeting of clean-tech business leaders to attack Maine’s pro-renewables energy policies, which he said are responsible for the loss of manufacturing jobs in the state.

LePage told business leaders at the Environmental & Energy Technology Council of Maine not to expect the public to pay for research and development of solar, wind, biomass and energy-efficiency projects.

During the coldest days of an especially cold winter, LePage said, Maine lawmakers were discussing rebates for solar energy, while a resident he heard about was huddled at home in an electric blanket.

“Don’t ask the ratepayers to pay for it, because they can’t afford it,” LePage said.

LePage stressed the need to build more natural-gas pipeline capacity in the region as a way to lower electricity and heating costs and keep manufacturing plants from leaving the state.

And he made a pitch for his effort to steer money from a stepped-up timber harvesting program on public lands to help Mainers convert to less-costly heating systems such as heat pumps and high-efficiency wood stoves.

Michaud’s and LePage’s records on renewable energy contrast sharply.

Last summer, Statoil, a Norwegian energy conglomerate, canceled plans for a $120 million offshore wind farm after LePage pressured the state Public Utilities Commission to reopen the bidding process because he was concerned the project would adversely affect ratepayers.

Instead of renewable energy, LePage has been focusing on lowering electricity costs for businesses and increasing access to natural gas. He also supports the controversial Keystone Pipeline, which would carry oil from Canada to Steele City, Neb.

Over his six terms in Congress, Michaud has sided with Environment America, a pro-renewables advocacy group, on 75 of 80 key votes, according to the group’s scorecard. He also has supported federal earmarks for renewable energy.

Michaud helped secure $951,000 in federal funding for the University of Maine’s tidal energy project off the coast of Eastport, and a total of $9 million in funding for offshore wind power development.

On Thursday, Cutler touted his experience in helping Sen. Edmund Muskie write the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, and his work with an environmental and land-use law firm, to demonstrate his commitment to the environment. Maine’s economy depends on a clean environment, he said.

“All of these resources are threatened by rising sea levels, rising water temperatures and changes in our flora and fauna,” Cutler said.

To reduce carbon emissions, Cutler said he would negotiate a clean fuel standard with Maine’s neighbors in New England and Canada, join a multistate effort to increase the number of zero-emissions vehicles to 15 percent of new cars by 2015, and redouble conservation and energy-efficiency efforts.

Cutler said he would work to protect and develop export markets for Maine’s renewable energy production and help develop solar, land-based and offshore wind power, and tidal energy.

“When Gov. LePage runs out of Maine one of the world’s leading renewable energy companies (Statoil), and claims that renewables are costing us manufacturing jobs, he is squandering great business opportunities for our state,” he said. “Maine can be a leader in the export of energy and technology made here, employing our people.”

Staff Writer Tux Turkel contributed to this report. 

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@pressherald.com

Twitter: @randybillings