Little did we know the word “and” could be worth somewhere in the range of $36 million.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission on Tuesday capped the amount of money it can require utilities to give to the Efficiency Maine Trust, which subsidizes energy savings projects at businesses and homes, perhaps most visibly by cutting the price of compact fluorescent light bulbs at retailers such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot.

The head of Efficiency Maine said Wednesday that the change could leave the agency struggling to fund both its heating and electricity efficiency programs when the new budgeting rules take effect in July 2016, but lawmakers and others plan to fight the PUC’s 2-1 decision, which hinged on one key phrase.

It depends on what the meaning of “total retail electricity” is. A law passed in the waning hours of the 2013 legislative session allows the PUC to set the budget for Efficiency Maine, but lawmakers wanted to put a check on that authority, establishing that the budget for electricity efficiency programs should amount to no more than 4 percent of certain electricity sales.

Specifically, the law said the cap would be based on “total retail electricity transmission and distribution sales.”

Transmission and distribution charges are one part of a bill. The actual electrons are another.

PUC Chairman Mark Vannoy said the language of the law is clear: It states the cap should be based on transmission and distribution costs alone.

Efficiency Maine, an industry group representing large power consumers, conservation groups and Democratic Party leaders argued that Vannoy’s interpretation — which also seems to be that of Commissioner Carlisle McLean, based on her vote Tuesday — ignores a legislative history that intended for the cap on Efficiency Maine’s annual electricity funds to come to about $59 million.

And and and … Tony Buxton, the attorney for the Industrial Energy Consumers Group and an usher of the 2013 Omnibus Energy Bill that tweaked Efficiency Maine’s funding, chalked up the misunderstanding to a drafting error.

“The word ‘and’ was inadvertently omitted from the statutory phrase at issue,” Buxton wrote. “The Legislature intended the language to read: ‘total retail electricity AND transmission and distribution sales.”

Assistant House Majority Leader Sara Gideon, a second-term Democrat from Freeport, said lawmakers from both sides of the aisle Wednesday were contemplating a legislative fix to clarify that the 2013 omnibus bill intended for electricity supply sales to be included.

Michael Stoddard, executive director of Efficiency Maine, said those sales together were estimated at around $1.4 billion for 2014. Without electricity supply sales, the number is closer to $575 million, which makes that quite a pricey “and.”

Efficiency Maine argues the cap would leave possible energy savings on the table. A 2012 study found there would be at least $45 million in cost-efficient electricity savings projects in Maine last year and another $60 million worth for 2015 and 2016.

The higher cap would give Efficiency Maine the ability to make the case to the PUC that it could help fund up to $59 million in electricity efficiency projects a year. The lower cap would limit that to about $23 million, depending on electricity sales for the previous year.

Stoddard said those investments would have systemwide benefits for ratepayers, as reducing demand can eliminate the need for building more capacity in the state’s electric grid, which is a cost worked into customers’ bills.

Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.