Reflections and Predictions on Maine's Energy Policies

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Lisa Pohlmann, Stacey Fitts, John Cleveland, Tom Saviello, Michael Cuzzi and Dan Demerritt speak on the policy panel at E2Tech  in Portland, Maine.The 126th Maine Legislature and its committees considered a diverse portfolio of environmental, energy and economic development bills related to mining, wind siting & permitting, solar energy, renewable portfolio requirements, energy efficiency funding, lake protection, small business bonds and many other topics.

On May 22, 2014, The Environmental and Energy Technology Council (E2Tech) took the opportunity after the legislative session ended and before the 2014 gubernatorial campaign intensified, to bring legislators, lobbyists and political experts together to discuss recent legislation and look ahead at initiatives that will define the political and policy landscape for the next Governor and Legislature.

The panelists in this forum were from three groups:
Maine State Legislature:
Senator John Cleveland - Chair, Energy, Utilities & Technology Committee
Senator Tom Saviello - Member, Environment & Natural Resources Committee

Business and the Environment:
Stacey Fitts, Regulatory Manager, Summit Natural Gas of Maine on behalf of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce
Lisa Pohlmann - Executive Director, Natural Resources Council of Maine

Political and Media:
Michael Cuzzi - VOX Global, MaineToday Media Commentator
Dan Demeritt, Winning Initiatives, MaineToday Media Commentator

Jim Katsiafikas of E2Tech photo by Kay MannModerator Jim Katsiafikas began by dedicating this forum to Samuel C. Townsend, a consummate gentleman with a loving family and an impressive life. As the former E2Tech Executive Director, Sam helped shape the direction and ensure the success of E2Tech and its members for years to come. Sam passed away in February 2014.

Katsiafikas then asked the following question to all panelists: What do you see as the biggest accomplishments, challenges and disappointments of the 126th Legislature?

Tom Saviello photo by Kay MannSaviello:
Saviello mentioned 3 bills that he thought were successful. One regulated dredging in trout streams for gold, which previously did not require a permit. This was vetoed and overridden. The others pertained to a surcharge on electrical generation and recycling of paints.

Saviello mentioned his frustrations were about the failure of bills on lakes monitoring and mining. These will be back next year.

Stacey Fitts photo by Kay MannFitts:
When you leave the legislature, you leave the momentum that you started. The hardest thing to watch from the outside was the lack of progress made this year. The most important bill was the omnibus energy act, which had something for everyone to love and for everyone to hate. It showed that people from all sides could work together.

Lisa Pohlmann of Natural Resources Council of Maine photo by Kay MannPohlmann:
Among the bright spots, weak mining rules were defeated. Water protection standards had been weakened in 2012. Sulphuric acid is released in the process of mining for other minerals that are bound with sulphuric rock underground.

Excess logging on public lands was defeated. The bill would have taken revenues from tree harvesting and earmarked them for efficiency efforts. Efficiency Maine already had a very successful program; let's let this work.

Solar power development goals are going to be set for Maine. A commission to study ocean acidification has been established; its report is due out in December.

A $10 million clean water bond was passed.

Disappointments included the fact that the proposed reinstatement of solar rebates was defeated. Maine is now the only state in New England without a financial incentive for solar power. In addition, the bill that would have protected lakes from fertilizers near the edges of water bodies and the farm to school program were vetoed.

Maine Senator John Cleveland photo by Kay MannCleveland:
Among the positive accomplishments was the bill to study solar energy and set goals for the state. This was the result of good bipartisan work.

The passage and override of the omnibus energy bill was the most significant. This doubled the budget of Efficiency Maine. This is just a beginning and there is much more to be done.

The committee worked hard on the bill that would reinstall the incentives for solar power. They missed overriding the veto by only 2 votes and this bill will be back next year.

The legislature did not pass any major wind power bills and Cleveland acknowledged that some groups have concerns about wind policy. The Energy Utilities and Technology Committee has taken a position of denial about these concerns in the past two years and Cleveland hopes to address these concerns in future sessions.

Natural gas has provided a cheaper and cleaner fuel and the New England governors have agreed upon a financing mechanism to bring in a larger capacity supply line.

Cleveland also mentioned the disappointment over Maine Aqua Ventus losing its bid for federal funding for its next stage of development.

The next question Katsiafikas posed to the panel was about what we see or look forward to in the future.

NRCM is interested to see the results of the solar study and what its recommendations may be. It is also very interested in ways to expand the use of electric vehicles. NRCM also wants to discourage building more power plants to meet our energy needs.

We will continue to see attempts to reduce the renewable portfolio standard, to invite cheap hydropower to be imported from Quebec and more attempts at inhibiting wind power development.

We do suffer from high energy costs in New England, overall, but Maine is "beating our neighbors" in energy costs. We do lag on renewable energy installations and incentives. Fitts, who now works for Summit Natural Gas, also spoke about the paradigm shift in converting to natural gas heating systems.

We need to work on a comprehensive energy policy that understands that renewable energy technologies will become more economically viable over time.

It now costs $3,200 per year to heat an average home in Maine. There are now technologies such as wood pellets that can lower this cost by 50%. If we could save this amount of money from going overseas for fuels, it will be a great boon to the state's economy. We need private capital investments to make these changes.

We will see legislation to increase the harvest of wood for pellet fuel. A mining bill will come back, as will the lakes bill. With any law, we need to make sure it can be enforced. As to wind policy, we need to create a voice for all sides.

Katsiaficas then introduced the two political commentators for their analysis.

Michael Cuzzi photo by Kay MannCuzzi:
Michaud and Cutler are playing to the broad swath of the electorate that is in favor or renewable energy technologies. While this is a way to energize Maine's economy, the campaign is unlikely to turn on energy issues.

LePage has a short and simple energy policy: to reduce costs. By comparison, many of the concepts and terminology about new energy ways and policies are more difficult for the average voter to understand, so this gives the governor a messaging advantage.

Cuzzi quoted a colleague who compared people's political views on renewable energy development to eating meat: everyone likes eating it but no one likes seeing the animal slaughtered. In similar ways, people don't like to see new energy infrastructure being built.

Dan Demerritt photo by Kay MannDemerritt:
People care mostly about getting enough power, not so much where the electrons are coming from. It you can't put it on a bumper sticker, you can't make it stick.

As far as legislative races go, energy has an impact that varies regionally.

In the gubernatorial race, the debates will be fun to watch. Lepage has staked out a simple policy on lowering energy costs. The election will be a referendum on LePage.

Note: E2Tech plans to host a gubernatorial candidates' debate on September 4.

About E2Tech:

The Environmental & Energy Technology Council of Maine (E2Tech) seeks to build and expand the State’s environmental, energy, and clean technology sectors. E2Tech acts as a catalyst to stimulate growth in this sector by facilitating networking, serving as a clearinghouse for objective information, and leading efforts to promote the sector.

E2Tech is a member-based organization comprised of businesses and organizations that seek to build Maine’s environmental and energy technology economy and include renewable power companies, environmental engineers, emerging entrepreneurs, innovators and designers, as well as government agencies, educational institutions, and non-profit organizations and businesses that see the economic promise of clean tech for Maine. E2Tech membership is for organizations and individuals engaged in Maine’s environmental and energy sectors interested in the growth of Maine’s clean technology economy.

All photos by Kay Mann.