AUGUSTA – Maine’s effort to be among the national leaders in requiring energy efficient appliances was postponed Wednesday, after a fiery debate among members of the Legislature’s Utilities and Energy Committee.
The bill under consideration, LD 1261, would have created a system for setting energy standards for countless appliances – which could have included such products as traffic lights and Laundromat washers in addition to household items.
Dozens of products currently on the market waste electricity, costing consumers money, Michael Stoddard, deputy director of Environment Northeast, a group that has been lobbying numerous states, said in an interview Wednesday afternoon.
The savings to Maine consumers could exceed $50 million over five years, while reducing the air and water pollution caused by electricity generation, say the bill’s supporters.
“The aggregate savings would help to reduce the cost of electricity for everybody,” Sue Jones, a lobbyist with the Natural Resources Council of Maine said in an interview after Wednesday’s work session.
Standards are the easiest and cheapest way of ensuring more efficient appliances, which could help to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and other polluting fossil fuels, Jones said.
“The beauty of the efficiency standards approach is that you don’t have to spend ratepayer dollars,” Stephen Ward, the state’s public advocate on energy issues, said during Wednesday’s debate. “If the manufacturer in Arizona or California pays for those investments, our customers are going to benefit.”
Despite Wednesday’s setback, the bill’s sponsor, majority leader Sen. Sharon Treat, D-Gardiner, believes that the standards still have a good chance of being enacted.
“Maine has traditionally been willing to be on the vanguard on many environmental issues,” she said in an interview after the debate, which she missed due to another commitment. “I think there is definitely support in the Legislature and out in the public.”
However, opponents call the standards an unfair burden on small business, and an example of government patronizing consumers.
“Stop treating the people of the state like they’re numb,” Rep. Donald Berry, R-Belmont, told his fellow committee members in a booming voice.
“This places a ridiculous penalty on the businesses and the people of Maine while promising great savings.”
Held over from last year, the bill has undergone countless rewrites and amendments. The most recent incarnation would put the efficiency standards on hold until a sufficient number of other states with populations totaling a substantial chunk of the nation’s population – perhaps 60 million people – passed similar laws.
Committee member Sen. Lynn Bromley, D-South Portland, called the state’s cautious approach “the penguin notion.”
“When enough people jump in the water, we’re coming too,” she said.
California had previously approved mandatory efficiency standards, and last month, the Maryland Legislature overrode a governor’s veto to put standards in place. The Massachusetts Legislature this week moved forward on a similar bill, which, if signed into law, would bring the population of people required to buy energy efficient appliances to more than 46 million.
“Other states are moving forward. It would be unfortunate for Maine people to be denied a similar benefit,” Jones said.
Opponents Wednesday cited manufacturers’ letters urging the state to let market demand drive a movement toward greater efficiency. At the very least, standards should be the responsibility of Washington, Berry said.
But the federal government has neglected its duty, Jones said.
“It’s not even on their agenda,” she said.
Berry also argued that new energy standards would increase the cost of appliances.
Proponents of the idea disagree, saying that standards would force manufacturers to offer energy saving technologies on all models, not only the top-of-the-line appliances.
The technology already exists, Stoddard said.
“The manufacturers have already spent the money,” he said.
Although the initial investment may be higher, the lower cost of using efficient appliances means that a consumer actually saves money over the life of a washing machine or refrigerator, Jones said.
The future of LD 1261 now depends on the committee’s chairmen bringing the issue back for a vote before the session ends in April.
Bromley encouraged her fellow legislators not to give up on the idea.
“When something hangs around for two years, its usually not that it’s a stupid idea … maybe it’s difficult, or even groundbreaking,” she said