What do the weather and energy costs have in common? We all like to complain a lot about both. We cannot do much about the weather, but we can take greater control over our energy costs. Increasing investment in energy efficiency projects is one very simple step we can take to reduce high energy prices.

It costs just 3.6 cents per kilowatt-hour to save electricity. It costs 8 to 9 cent for electricity supplied by power plants, and to get that power to our homes and businesses it costs a total of about 15 cents.

The virtues of saving electricity have always been clear, but saving energy has always faced one major roadblock: to use less electricity in the long run requires us to pay more for energy saving lights, appliances and motors in the short term. Efficiency Maine was established in 2002 to help Mainers save money and electricity over the long term even when it costs more now.

For every dollar it has invested, customers of Efficiency Maine have saved more than $3, a total of more than $500 million dollars in seven years. Efficiency Maine has leveraged $20 million in public funding to attract $75 million in private capital for energy saving investments in fiscal year 2010 alone.

In 2009, the Legislature recognized the commonsense behind saving energy and directed Efficiency Maine to develop a plan to capture all cost-effective energy efficiency resources. A three-year plan and budget was developed and reviewed. It was approved by the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

The proposed budget for the next two years is $53.5 million, much lower than what Central Maine Power, the Maine PUC and Environment Northeast say is needed to meet the Legislature’s charge.  According to one study, were we to invest in all cost-effective electric efficiency over the next 15 years, we would increase state economic activity by $10.5 billion, create tens of thousands of jobs in state, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of five coal plants.

To save money, we will have to spend some money, and to seriously address today’s significant energy problems we will have to spend a little more. This means a small increase in the charge on electricity bills to expand our efficiency investments. The charge is currently under 1.5 tenths of a cent, which for the average family equals 75 cents per month; the proposal is to increase it to 3.5 tenths of a cent in two years.

A homeowner could save more than the entire proposed increase simply by replacing one traditional 100-watt light bulb with a 23-watt compact fluorescent bulb. Even with this increase, Maine ratepayers would still pay significantly less than what residents in neighboring states invest in efficiency on a per capita basis.

Given high and rising energy prices, now would not seem a good time to keep the status quo in our efforts to encourage more energy efficiency. But that is what is happening in the Legislature. Concerns about increasing the Efficiency Maine budget are erecting barriers to real savings for almost everybody in Maine, despite broad-based public support for increased investments in energy efficiency

Some recent projects tell why investing in energy saving projects is a no-brainer. The Brewer Marden’s completed a $66,000 lighting project that will save $236,000 over the project life. The Bangor Water District in Otis recently completed a project that cost $69,000 but will save local taxpayers $158,000 over the project life. The Town of Bucksport undertook $27,000 in lighting projects that will save town taxpayers $51,000.

A York bakery completed a $19,000 lighting project that will save $161,000. In each case, Efficiency Maine provided an incentive, but roughly two-thirds of the projects’ costs were paid for by the town or company. The list of projects large and small goes on and on, and we have just begun to tap the full energy savings potential.

Everyone benefits when we become more efficient users of electricity.  When we underinvest in efficiency we spend our hard-earned dollars on expensive power plants, fossil fuels and new transmission lines that are not needed.  And, we unnecessarily export energy dollars rather than spending them in state.

This is probably why the vast majority of Maine people support increasing public investment in energy efficiency programs. This is why we do too.  We encourage the Maine Legislature to do so also by supporting Efficiency Maine’s budget proposal.

Charles S. Colgan is chair of the Community Planning and Development Program at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine. Chip Morrison is president of the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce. Jim Wellehan is president of Lamey Wellehan Shoes.