Gov. Janet Mills signs legislation to help boost renewable energy in Maine, create clean energy jobs and fight climate change. The legislation will help achieve the governor's goals of 80 percent renewable energy in the state by 2030 and emissions reductions of 80 percent by 2050. Credit: Courtesy of the governor's office

The Maine Public Utilities Commission has reversed its May ruling that would have cut as much as 20 percent from Efficiency Maine Trust’s proposed electricity budget and eliminated help for low-income Mainers buying heat pump water heaters.

Cutting help for heat pump water heaters, which replace older and less efficient electric hot water tanks, would have removed the top energy conservation measure for low-income Mainers offered by Efficiency Maine, which subsidizes energy-savings projects such as heat pumps and insulation at businesses and in homes.

“Those water heaters are our No. 1 energy conservation measure for low-income Mainers,” said Michael Stoddard, executive director of Efficiency Maine. “The PUC’s decision last week allows us to offer that [benefit] again.”

Efficiency Maine has paid the full cost of the equipment and installation of the heat pump water heaters, which is about $1,500, for low-income customers whose eligibility has been verified, he said.

About 6,000 to 7,000 homes each year get the heat pump water heaters, some 500 of which are low-income homes. That’s the highest number per capita in the country, Stoddard said.

The heat pump water heaters, which are for hot water tanks and not to heat the full home, can cut the electricity usage for hot water in half. Stoddard said a typical home uses one-quarter of its electricity to heat hot water.

The PUC made its latest ruling June 26 after Gov. Janet Mills signed into law a measure that clarifies how the regulatory body approves or rejects Efficiency Maine Trust’s three-year budget and efficiency plan. That law took effect immediately upon signing June 17.

The PUC reversed its May ruling that would have reduced Efficiency Maine’s electricity budget by 20 percent.

Stoddard said the electricity portion of its budget represents about $110 million of the total $158.2 million. That percentage will be added back in when Electricity Maine sends the budget to the PUC for review within the next two weeks, he said.

At issue was a formula for calculating how cost-effective a proposed energy-efficiency project is. While the PUC approved funding for a wide range of different projects, it used a different calculation for cost-effectiveness than Efficiency Maine.

As a result, the PUC used its formula and approved less money than requested by Efficiency Maine. The approval did not fund the heat pump water heaters.

The new law signed by the governor orders the PUC to use Efficiency Maine’s calculations of energy savings. And those calculations show the heat pump water heaters meet requirements for efficiency.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine, an environmental advocacy group, said the PUC’s approach to valuing energy efficiency savings was biased.

“The Legislature [and governor] have clarified that it is Efficiency Maine’s responsibility to determine what efficiency measures make the most sense for Mainers,” said Sue Ely, climate and clean energy policy advocate and staff attorney at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, an environmental advocacy group.

Efficiency Maine’s budget and plan for energy-efficiency savings runs for three years from July 1, 2019, through June 30, 2022.

Mills has been a strong backer of environmental measures, including those by Efficiency Maine. In May the two announced initiatives to expand the use of electric vehicles across Maine in an effort to reduce the state’s carbon footprint and reliance on fossil fuels.

Mills also signed into law bills approved by the recently adjourned Legislative session that would move Maine toward her goals of 80 percent renewable energy by 2030 and emissions reductions of 80 percent by 2050.

Lori Valigra, senior reporter for economy and business, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...