Maine proposal seeks to reduce natural gas hookups

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(The Center Square) — Maine lawmakers are considering a Democratic proposal that seeks to phase out natural gas in the state gradually, but critics say the plan would drive up energy costs and restrict consumer options.

The proposal, which will be considered by the Legislature’s Committee On Energy, Utilities and Technology on Thursday, calls for phasing out the state’s reliance on gas, preventing utilities from passing on the costs of new service hookups in commercial and residential properties beginning in 2025 and force them to study the use of heat-pumps, among other mandates.

Maine Public Advocate Bill Harwood, whose office drafted the legislation, said in recent testimony that the measure would allow the state “to hit the pause button” on the expansion of natural gas while it studies “what role we want gas to play in our energy future.”

“The time has come when we can no longer allow expansion of the natural gas industry in Maine to be business as usual,” Harwood said. “If we are serious about meeting our climate change goals, we must begin the discussion of phasing out our reliance on all fossil fuels, including natural gas.”

The bill, if approved, would also require the state to conduct a study on indoor air quality and potential health impacts from natural gas-powered appliances.

But the proposal faces pushback from Gov. Janet Mills, whose administration says it lacks a plan “to address the barriers that low-income and underserved Maine people face in transitioning to clean energy and energy-efficient home appliances.”

“Making these wholesale changes to the law regarding service and cost recovery without an evaluation of the impacts of these changes may have unintended outcomes related to Maine’s emissions and affordability,” the Governor’s Energy Office said in recent testimony opposing the bill.

The agency recommended a review to “carefully examine how the future of gas in Maine must be approached and evaluated to ensure safety, energy affordability, and reliability for Maine people and businesses in the years ahead.”

The Maine Policy Institute said the change would result in “increased costs for heating and home building, restrict consumer choice, and coerce consumers into relying on electricity to meet their future space and water heating needs.”

“The data are clear that restrictions on new natural gas hookups are expensive and arbitrary impositions on energy consumers that only serve to undermine energy reliability and affordability,” Jacob Posik, the group’s legislative affairs director, wrote in recent testimony.

A four-year climate change plan, signed by Mills a year ago, commits the state to taking ambitious steps to meet those goals, including expansion of wind and solar power, getting more electric vehicles on the road, and improving energy efficiency.

Environmental groups have been prodding the state to force utilities to move away from new natural gas infrastructure as the state seeks to diversify its energy portfolio to include solar, wind and other renewable power sources.

But natural gas industry officials argue the state will continue to need natural gas for a large portion of its energy, even as it turns to more renewable sources.

Roughly half of New England’s energy comes from natural gas, according to ISO New England, which oversees the regional power grid.

Republicans have blasted the gas hookup proposal as “government overreach” that would limit choices for the state’s energy consumers.

“Rather than slowly phasing out the use of natural gas, we should be allowing Mainers the freedom to choose what options work best for them, and their families,” said state Rep. Joseph Underwood, R-Presque Isle. “The bottom line is that natural gas is one of the most affordable options the people of this great state have to heat their homes.”

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