AUGUSTA — It was an energizing experience for Ken Fletcher.

About a decade ago, the Winslow resident founded the group Save Our Sebasticook with other local riverfront homeowners to oppose the removal of Fort Halifax Dam, a hydroelectric facility on the Sebasticook River.

Fletcher became an outspoken thorn in the side of FPL Energy, the Florida firm that owned the dam, battling the dam removal with lawsuits and court appeals. The effort prompted Fletcher to thoroughly research energy issues, and he would successfully run to become a state legislator.

His efforts ultimately failed. FPL Energy eventually won the necessary state and local approvals and removed the dam in the summer of 2008.

“It was one of those events that got me going in that direction,” Fletcher said in an interview last week. “It was frustrating, but it gave me the motivation that we need policy direction. It was a defining moment.”

Today, the 65-year-old Republican is the newly appointed director of the state Office of Energy Independence and Security. He is the energy point man for the administration of Gov. Paul LePage, also a Republican.

Fletcher remains convinced that removing the Fort Halifax Dam was a mistake. He’s said the facility’s 1.8 megawatts of renewable energy helped displace 548,000 gallons of oil a year. Fletcher recently estimated that the dam removal has also amounted to some $1.6 million in unforeseen costs to the town, state and federal governments.

Fletcher had planned a quiet retirement from state politics when he termed-out as a legislator at the end of last year. He planned to focus on his new role as a Winslow town councilor, while also serving on several local boards and organizations, including on the energy committee of the Sustain Mid-Maine Coalition.

But Fletcher couldn’t stay away for long. He was soon appointed by LePage — who Fletcher knew while LePage was mayor of neighboring Waterville — to help research options for the administration’s state budget proposal.

Fletcher’s appointment as energy director was announced March 14. The office also includes two assistant positions, only one of which is currently filled.

As energy director, Fletcher succeeds John M. Kerry, who served during the previous administration of Democrat John Baldacci.

Energy goals

Four weeks into the job now, Fletcher said he’s still getting a handle on tracking energy-related legislation, producing information and reports, and explaining the LePage administration’s positions.

His primary goals from LePage are to bring down the electricity prices for Maine consumers, and reduce the overall cost of energy for citizens, businesses and organizations.

Maine’s electricity rates are 42 percent higher than the national average, Fletcher said, equaling about $400 million per year of additional costs. Fletcher thinks that’s because the state is too dependent on fossil fuel, driving up overall energy costs.

That, in turn, has a direct impact on attracting and expanding businesses to the state, he said. The bottom line of the administration’s energy policy, he said, is finding environmentally responsible solutions that can help create jobs.

“It’s really part of an economic strategy; we got to get ourselves in a better competitive position,” Fletcher said.

Those higher fossil fuel costs are also crippling Maine residents who rely on heating fuel for their homes and gas for vehicles. This week, the average cost of heating oil in the Augusta and Waterville area was $3.60 per gallon, according to the website Fletcher estimates the average Maine household is spending about $1,400 a year on heating oil now.

Maine consumes 1.6 billion gallons of fuel oil per year, Fletcher said. Of that, more than half is for transportation and about one-third is for heating.

Now, 64 percent of the state’s energy use comes from fossil fuels and natural gas, he said, while nearly 30 percent is from biomass and a smaller slice from hydro-power.

Fletcher’s solution to the problem isn’t new: Reduce the state’s dependence on imported oil.

But how to do that — and what role government plays — is where disagreements may arise.

Sen. Phil Bartlett, D-Gorham, former chair of utilities committee, said he’s had a good relationship with Fletcher.

“We both want to lower energy costs for Maine ratepayers, but I tend to approach it differently, with government playing a key role in that,” Bartlett said.

As energy director, Fletcher said his philosophy is to empower people to make their own decisions. That requires the proper motivation, knowledge about what’s available, access and financial means, and personal responsibility, he said.

Job experience

From working at pulp and paper mills, to his eight years as a legislator as the ranking minority member on the Utilities and Energy Committee, Fletcher thinks his experience suits him well for the job.

So do several others.

Rep. Stacey Fitts, R-Pittsfield, worked alongside Fletcher during his years on the utilities committee and thinks Fletcher distinguished himself as among the most knowledgeable members.

“Not a member in the committee’s history has done so much homework in issues related to bills,” Fitts said. “He was the most studious. He would spend hours and hours when he got home at night, analyzing issues, forming his own financial equations. He’s probably one of the most analytical legislators I’ve ever served with.”

And the utilities committee was able to reach unanimous decisions on most issues with Fletcher as ranking minority member, said Sean Mahoney, vice president and director of the Conservation Law Foundation of Maine.

“I think Ken will bring competence to the position and an understanding that our energy, our current form of energy generation, which is primarily oil and gas, isn’t sustainable in the long term, economically or environmentally.”

Rep. Brad Moulton, R-York, introduced a bill recently that sought to eliminate the energy office. It was rejected by the utilities committee late last month. York said the bill was in part intended to reflect his dissatisfaction with the previous energy director, and how he felt it was more of a “figurehead, feel-good office.”

“There’s a lot of federal money coming into this office, so there’s a legitimate reason for retaining it,” Moulton said.

How will Fletcher measure progress?

Fletcher wants to see the state’s electricity rates lowered to their levels two decades ago, when they were just 16 percent above the national average, instead of 42 percent. He’d also like to see average home heating costs reduced at least 5 percent a year.

He thinks of natural gas as a “transition fuel” that can help us wean off of fossil fuels, but it’s an energy source that will run out at some point.

Fletcher said the LePage administration favors importing liquefied natural gas, even though several proposals have failed in recent years.

Fletcher said he’s also been asked by the governor to examine the cost of production for wind power, its government subsidies included, and assess whether it’s competitive with alternative energy uses.

Even so, “everything’s got to be on the table,” he said.

Scott Monroe — 861-9239

[email protected]