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Cold Winter Pinching Mainers' Energy Budgets
01/21/2014   Reported By: Susan Sharon

With another cold snap and more winter weather on the way, Gov. Paul LePage is urging legislative leaders to do everything they can to lower the price of electricity for Maine businesses, and to use state resources to help Mainers lower their energy bills. And as Susan Sharon reports, the president of the Propane Gas Association of New England has one suggestion: Build more propane storage capacity in the region.

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According to the Governor's Energy Office, wholesale electricity prices in New England were nearly 60 percent higher last year than in 2012. Propane prices have increased 22 percent since the heating season began in October, and the average price of home heating oil is $3.81 per gallon.

That means nearly 70 percent of Maine households will be spending more than $3,200 this winter on heat alone. Energy Office Director Patrick Woodcock says, for some families, the cost is too much.

"We've been deluged with phone calls, people in desperate situations," he says. "They're down to sleeping by the wood fireplace. They have no funding and people are in desperate situations."

Agencies that dispense low-income fuel assistance are also worried about the rest of the winter. Mike Tarpinian is CEO of the Opportunity Alliance, which handles fuel assistance applications for Cumberland County. He says his office has already processed 3,000 applications for heating assistance, compared with 2,000 this time last year.

"We have people now who have already received their benefit, have burned through the fuel and are turning to us again for emergency allocations, for which we have very little money," he says. "And so now we have people who are really in dire straits."

Woodcock says the administration is moving toward regional solutions. Meantime, he says what's needed is to help homeowners make investments in more affordable heating solutions.

"That's natural gas. That's energy efficiency. That's heat pumps. There are a range of options," he says. "What we need to do is prioritize finite state resources to help meet these energy challenges."

One way Maine and New England could lower the cost of propane is to build more storage capacity in the region, says Joe Rose, president and CEO of the Propane Gas Association of New England.

Rose takes issue with recent news reports that suggests the high cost of propane is the result of a propane shortage. He says propane production in the United States is the highest it's ever been. What's been a problem, Rose says, is getting propane to Maine and surrounding states.

"Maine is almost 100 percent dependent on rail, and with the early winter weather that we had, with the severe cold, the ice storms, that really almost stopped the trains dead in their tracks," Rose says. "And so rail got way behind, and in response to that, we worked with the import terminals to order propane, additional supplies from Europe and from North Africa."

Rose says importing propane from Europe and North Africa costs about 75 cents more per gallon than American propane. And while New England accounts for 7 percent of propane sales, Rose says it only has 1 percent of the storage supply.

"The way out is to build storage," he says. "And the industry's willing to pay for the storage. We just need to get it permitted. And that's a task."

Had a proposed 14-story storage tank in Searsport not been rejected because of residents' overwhelming opposition around safety and environmental concerns, Rose says it would have been able to provide 20 million gallons of propane, about 20 percent of what Mainers use in a single winter.


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