Big things can start small. That was the hope Friday, when the nation’s first floating wind turbine was lowered into the Penobscot River, to be towed to a mooring off Castine.

No one is expecting much, at least not right away. The 65-foot-tall prototype is a one-eighth-scale model of what eventually could be launched. Its output is expected to be no more than 20 kilowatts, enough to power about 20 homes. But its potential is much greater.

If the experiment is successful, it could lead to an offshore wind farm with hundreds of turbines, producing clean, renewable power at competitive prices by 2020.

That is Maine’s energy future, and it is exciting. But before that can become our reality, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done.

The Legislature is on the brink of taking some of those important steps, with a bipartisan energy bill that takes ideas from interested parties from big manufacturers to individual households. Combined, the bill proposes to lower energy costs in homes, factories and government buildings, leaving more money to circulate in the economy instead of leaving the state in the pocket of oil companies. Lower rates would make Maine business more competitive, creating new jobs. And it would pave the way to the energy future heralded by the launch of the prototype turbine,

Bipartisan approach

The omnibus bill combines ideas from nine different pieces of legislation, but it has three important goals: shifting the state from its dependence on oil to natural gas, increasing efficiency efforts and making the state a player in the energy market, with the goal of lowering costs.

The energy bill stands out from most of what has gone on this legislative session because it is the product of compromise and cooperation. That doesn’t mean, however, that it is immune to the atmosphere of conflict in Augusta.

Some environmental groups say it would make us overly reliant on gas, a nonrenewable fossil fuel that contributes to climate change. Gov. Paul LePage is opposed to the bill in its current form, even though it incorporates some of his ideas. He doesn’t like it because it does not scale back the state’s ambitious wind power goals, and it doesn’t lift the cap on renewable generators, an action that he believes (although energy experts disagree) would open the door to cheaper hydro power from Quebec.

The bill will have to face a partisan headwind that makes it difficult for any big legislation to get a fair hearing. But this is a package that deserves one.

With the nation in the middle of a natural gas boom, the shift away from oil makes a lot of sense. Although we have made strides to reduce our dependence on oil, Maine is still an outlier, particularly in home heating. Oil prices are volatile, and in recent winters families have faced tough choices, sometimes even between paying their oil bill and buying food. Oil dependence has also affected property tax rates, and communities struggle to heat schools and other government buildings.

Getting the gas here

The challenge is getting enough gas into Maine so that people and businesses here can take advantage of the low prices. That is complicated by the fact that Maine is a small market at the end of the distribution system, providing little incentive for pipeline companies to invest the billions of dollars that it would take to increase gas supply here.

A strategy to do that is part of the bill. Since pipelines are not built on spec, and 100 percent of a proposed pipeline’s capacity has to be sold before it can seek financing, the bill would let the Maine Public Utilities Commission issue bonds to promise to buy pipeline capacity in conjunction with mills and other potential customers. This authority could be used to facilitate the construction of a pipeline that brings gas from the fields of Pennsylvania and western New York into the New England gas pipeline hub in Massachusetts, even though those lines would not touch Maine

By increasing the supply of gas in New England, proponents say the price in Maine would drop. That would affect electricity rates, since about half our power is generated by natural gas.

The bonds would be repaid by Maine electric ratepayers, but that would be more than offset by lower rates driven by lower gas prices, according to the bill’s supporters.

As good a deal as this could be, switching from oil to gas is not enough. Gas prices are at historic lows, and while these costs are still expected to stay well below those of oil, we can’t count on them to stay low.

That’s why the efficiency element of the energy bill is so important. The bill calls for the PUC to channel funds from the sale of greenhouse gas reduction credits and a settlement with the former Maine Yankee nuclear power plant to invest in energy-efficiency projects, including helping homeowners convert from oil to alternative heating systems, including gas or high-efficiency wood pellet systems.

Reducing energy bills by reducing consumption is the best deal for Maine consumers because energy not used is the least expensive source of energy available.

The promise of the offshore turbine is that by 2020, Maine could have a local power-producing industry that creates clean energy at competitive prices. But Maine can’t wait until then.

We should take steps now to lower energy costs and make our other industries competitive. The omnibus energy bill takes a step in that direction, and lawmakers should support it.

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