Thursday, February 08, 2007

Bright ideas

Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald
February 7, 2007

SACO - A new wind turbine catches the breeze coming down the Saco River, powering the energy-efficient lights in a nearby office building.

Solar panels catch the sunlight on the roof of another building, producing enough heat to keep the equipment inside from freezing up.
Welcome to Saco's wastewater treatment plant, where the city treats its sewage and showcases alternative energy. Next up, officials hope to heat part of the facility using the 2.4 million gallons of effluent that flows through each day and into the Saco River.

Saco and its sewage treatment plant are leaders of a new trend among Maine's local governments to reduce energy use and environmental damage. The efforts appear to be gaining momentum as citizens mobilize to fight global warming and as municipal officials calculate the tax dollars that can be saved by using less oil, diesel fuel and electricity.

"It's easy," said Eric Cote, a city councilor in Saco and leader of the city's energy-efficiency campaign. "No one fights about it."

Efforts in Maine range from Saco's new windmill and Portland's fleet of biodiesel-fueled school buses and snowplows to energy-efficient light bulbs in schools in Kennebunk.

Four Maine communities have signed a U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement and pledged to reduce emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide at least 7 percent by 2012. At least seven more are considering signing, said Glen Brand, a Falmouth resident and national campaign director of the Sierra Club's Cool Cities program.

"Last year there were no Maine cities signed on yet," Brand said.

"These cities are demonstrating that clean-energy solutions like cleaner vehicles and clean renewable power are feasible, cost-effective and politically popular."

Nationwide, 393 cities and towns have signed the agreement, Brand said.

The trend started in large cities such as Seattle and Portland, Ore. New York and Boston are now considered leaders, too. Efforts include land-use policies that discourage sprawl, mass transit investments and energy-efficient building codes.

At least one study of the trend points out that it follows a shift in American cities from manufacturing economies to service economies, reducing the potential costs of local environmental regulation. Communities may be taking the lead on sustainability in part because, politically speaking, they can.

Many of those driving the trend say it's a response to a lack of action or leadership on the national level, especially the Bush administration's refusal to join the Kyoto Protocol and regulate global warming pollution.

"I think we're motivated by the slow pace of progress on global warming. The science is so clear now and yet the progress is so slow," said Jennifer Niese of Kennebunk.

Niese, a biology teacher and the mother of a kindergartner, was one of a group of friends and acquaintances in Kennebunk who last summer started the Sustainable Energy Alliance (

The group made a pitch to the town's Board of Selectmen last fall, pointing out the dollars to be saved from reduced energy use.

Niese expects her town to begin by switching to energy-efficient lighting and computer screens and then move through a list of other improvements that should cost little and save a lot. "There's a lot of opportunity to save money on energy bills before you get into things that require a big investment," she said.

Portland was Maine's first community to pledge to cut back emissions of carbon dioxide. In 2005, the city accepted Gov. John Baldacci's carbon challenge and promised to reduce emissions by 10 percent within five years.

The city has taken a range of actions, from switching to energy-efficient lighting -- including its traffic lights and Christmas tree lights -- to reducing truck and bus idling. In November, it switched all 200 of its diesel vehicles to soy-based biodiesel, a mixture of diesel and renewable fuels.

The switch isn't intended to cost or save the city money, but it is reducing the city's air pollution and reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 650,000 pounds a year, said Mike Bobinsky, Portland director of public works. "It has great advantages for our community and our region," he said.

Saco also is clearly among Maine's greenest communities.

The new wind turbine is considered a small test to see the potential for wind power. It cost about $10,000 and is expected to pay for itself within about 10 years. It provides 400 kilowatts per month, or one-third of the power needed by the small office building next to it.

An emerging plan to use the city's wastewater for heat is a twist on geothermal energy technology, which typically involves the expensive process of drilling deep into the bedrock to find 50-degree water. It turns out the effluent flushed through sewers arrives at about that same temperature.

Howard Carter, deputy director of the Public Works Department, said simple heat pumps can draw the energy off the effluent and use it to heat outside air drawn into the treatment plant.

Cote, the city councilor, said Saco is saving more than $100,000 a year because of the energy-efficiency investments. The City Council was so pleased with the savings generated by initial efforts that last year it approved a $300,000 budget for energy-efficiency improvements, with no opposition.

"I've been involved in local government for 20 years now. That's one of the most unusual things I've experienced," said City
Administrator Rick Michaud.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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