AUGUSTA — Mainers spent $7.6 billion on energy in 2015, but the state does energy planning and policy work with only two full-time positions that are part of the governor’s office, some part-time temporary help and a bare-bones budget.

Maine would be better served by having a Cabinet-level energy agency, with a commissioner and adequate staff, to handle complex issues that affect the state but are national and regional in scope.

That view was expressed Tuesday not by environmental advocates, but by House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport. During testimony on the bill he was presenting to lawmakers at a public hearing, Fredette acknowledged that Republicans typically don’t look to add people to the state’s payroll.

“But we really aren’t staffed up to deal with a lot of these issues,” he said, referring to topics that include offshore wind energy, nuclear waste storage at the former Maine Yankee power plant in Wiscasset, and the growing use of solar energy.

PROPOSAL RESONATES

Fredette’s bill to create a Maine Energy Office resonated with members of the committee that deals with utility and energy matters. There’s some dispute over how to pay for a beefed-up energy office. And it may be best, some said, to study the issue after the legislative session ends and tee up a plan for when the next governor takes office in 2019. That would short-circuit partisan bickering about the future of an office now controlled by Gov. Paul LePage, an outspoken opponent of renewable energy.

LePage has declined to appoint a new director for the Governor’s Energy Office since last fall, when Patrick Woodcock resigned. But his acting director, Angela Monroe, expressed support Tuesday for Fredette’s idea. She said her office would need at least five people to properly handle the workload.

There was wide agreement at the hearing that Maine is way behind what other states are doing to help their residents and businesses lower energy bills, benefit from new technologies and navigate a maze of rules and regulations. During Tuesday’s testimony, it was brought out that New Hampshire’s energy office has a staff of 14 and gets $600,000 a year from its general fund. Vermont’s office has 10 people and is funded mostly by ratepayers and utilities.

FINDING THE MONEY

Maine’s office relies largely on a federal grant pegged at between $350,000 and $400,000 this year for operations. But Fredette and others fear the program that helps support state energy offices may be at risk under budget proposals from the Trump administration.

Fredette said he saw the need to elevate Maine’s profile after a recent trip to Washington, D.C., where he met with staff from the Department of Energy and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. He’s also a legislative liaison to Canada, which has vast hydroelectric resources being developed for export to New England.

In his bill, Fredette proposed taking $300,000 from the Efficiency Maine Trust to help form a new state energy office. But some lawmakers wondered why it wouldn’t be better to get the money from the General Fund, a debate that’s likely to extend past this session.

Efficiency Maine was created by state law in 2009 to consolidate spending on consumer efficiency programs for homes and businesses. The trust spent $47.8 million in 2016, according to its annual report. Funding came from sources that include Maine ratepayers and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. In the last fiscal year, programs helped homes and businesses avoid $300 million in energy costs.

If Maine creates a more robust energy office, it would be revisiting the past. State energy offices were established after the 1973 Middle East oil embargo, as a response to the nation’s dependence on imported petroleum. Maine’s Office of Energy Resources was set up in 1975 during the term of Gov. James Longley.

An emphasis on cutting oil use and developing local renewable power led to growth in the agency during the administration of Gov. Joseph Brennan. Gordon Weil, who directed the office under Brennan from 1980 to 1982, said in a phone interview before Tuesday’s hearing that he recalls having 20 to 25 people on his staff. But an economic downturn led the Legislature to dissolve the agency in 1989, placing some functions within the now-defunct Maine State Planning Office and other agencies.

The lack of coordination that followed led lawmakers in 2001 to create the Energy Resources Council, which had members of various agencies working together on energy policy. But the function returned to the governor’s office in 2003 when then-Gov. John Baldacci created the Office of Energy Independence and Security.

LePage renamed it the Governor’s Energy Office when he took over in 2011. The cost of energy has been a major focus under LePage, but he has run a lean office. Until last year it functioned with a director and senior planner.

The office now operates with Monroe as acting director and a senior planner, Lisa Smith. Recently, Jim LaBrecque, an informal energy adviser to LePage, and Larry Dunphy, a former legislator, have joined in temporary positions to ease the workload during the session. Dunphy’s work will end after the session, Monroe said. LeBrecque is a consultant under a temporary contract.

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