AUGUSTA, Maine - Business representatives are joining environmentalists in warning that a one-word typographical error could cost Maine energy consumers a quarter of a billion dollars in higher energy bills over the next three years.
Several of them are speaking out about the effects of a clerical error that could limit funding for energy efficiency programs next year.
Dylan Voorhees says it was more than year before anybody noticed the missing word "and" from the 11,000 word omnibus energy bill, passed in 2013. Voorhees, who is the clean energy director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, says the accidental omission occurred at the revisor's office when the law was being drafted.
But mistake or no mistake, the lack of that one little word is having some big financial ramifications in reducing the cap on energy efficiency projects. "What this means is missed opportunities for savings," Voorhees says.
That missing word resulted in a 2-1 vote by the Public Utilities Commission earlier this month to limit spending on energy efficiency programs to $22 million a year. The figure is well below the $60 million cap that some lawmakers say they intended when they passed the widely supported omnibus energy bill two years ago.
"This cap applied over that three-year period would mean that energy consumers in the state of Maine would spend $250 million more, on net, on their energy bills as a result of missed energy efficiency opportunities," Voorhees says. Voorhees says energy bills could increase by nearly $1 billion over the next decade if the situation is not fixed.
Wick Johnson says he's been making use of energy saving programs offered by Efficiency Maine for nearly 10 years. Johnson is president and CEO of Kennebec Technologies in Augusta, a high-tech manufacturing firm. "This year we are one of 3,000 businesses in Maine that took advantage of these programs."
Johnson says the efficiency programs have helped the company dramatically reduce its lighting and manufacturing costs. "And every time we do an expansion we make sure we're taking into account the best principles for energy efficiency."
"The Efficiency Maine program over the last year-and-a-half has incentivized more than 7,500 heat pumps here in Maine," says Roger Willett is with Mitsubishi Electric, a global manufacturer of heat pumps and air conditioning units. "Those 7,500 heat pumps saved Maine families over $5 million in fossil fuel purchases."
And under the existing incentive program, Willett says that $5 million would be saved every year over the 15- to 20-year life of the product. "So we're looking at pumping $80 million to $90 million back into the Maine economy because of this program, and it's critically important that we continue to fund those programs."
Maine State Chamber President Dana Connors says Efficiency Maine programs are important for Maine businesses. He says the intent of the omnibus energy law is clear, regardless of the missing word in the final draft, and he's hoping for a relatively quick fix to the problem. "Right now it is of deep concern," he says. "But I think the intent of the legislation was well-established, and I think before it's over any issues will be resolved."
Maine Public Advocate Tim Schneider did not return a telephone call from MPBN. But in a written statement he said that ensuring Efficiency Maine has all the resources it needs "will benefit all rate-payers."
Republican lawmakers have defended the PUC's recent vote, saying it was correct in following the letter of the law. Last week they blocked a legislative effort by Democrats to restore the missing word to the text of the energy law.
The Natural Resources Council of Maine, meanwhile, says it will soon be filing a motion urging the Public Utilities Commission to reconsider its action.