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Maryland House OKs extension of energy-efficiency program

Over the objections of Republicans, the Maryland House of Delegates approved a bill Tuesday that would extend the state's energy efficiency program.

The vote was 92-46. The Senate has not yet voted on the measure.

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The EmPOWER Act was passed in 2008, requiring utilities to reduce per capita electricity use by 10 percent by 2015. The law didn't require the program to continue past 2015 after meeting that goal. The state's Public Service Commission has supported the program and asked utilities to lay out plans to invest more in energy efficiency.

The bill before the General Assembly would put the Public Service Commission's order into law, ensuring EmPOWER will continue.

Under current law, utility customers are charged a fee on their monthly bills. The money is used for efficient appliances, home energy checkups, rebates and bill credits for reducing electricity use.

Low-income families, for example, can participate in a state program that helps finance energy efficiency upgrades. BGE customers can take part in the company's Smart Energy Savers Program, which ranges from rebates for buying energy-efficient appliances to rewards for recycling old refrigerators.

A report in January found that for every $1 spent in the program, the state has saved $1.81 through reduced energy prices.

Some Republicans, however, raised concerns during debate that the fee on utility bills is a burden, especially to poor households.

"This bill is a regressive tax," said Del. Neil Parrott, a Washington County Republican.

Del. Herb McMillan, an Anne Arundel County Republican, said the energy-saving program "sounds pretty good, until you realize other people have to pay for it."

Democrats countered that the investment in EmPOWER Maryland is worthwhile.

"This program is working and it is working well," said Del. Sally Jameson, a Charles County Democrat and lead sponsor of the bill.

Clean energy advocates praised the passage of the bill in the House. It is pending in the Senate.

"The easiest way to save ratepayers money is to take advantage of programs like EmPOWER Maryland," said Daniel Bloom of the group Advanced Energy Economy, which represents clean-energy businesses.

Bloom said he hopes Gov. Larry Hogan will sign the bill into law if it passes both chambers — not veto it as he did legislation that increases the state's renewable energy requirements. He called that measure a "sunshine and wind tax." Lawmakers overrode that veto this year.

"We're hoping Governor Hogan does not politicize this issue and make it partisan, as when he vetoed the RPS bill," Bloom said.

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The governor's office couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

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