Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Major Setback for Clean Air

NY Times

July 16, 2008

Nobody could ever seriously accuse the Bush administration of being too aggressive when it comes to enforcing the nation’s environmental laws. But it was partly on those grounds that a federal court last week struck down the Clean Air Interstate Rule, a regulation aimed at reducing soot and smog and one of the few creative initiatives to emerge from the Environmental Protection Agency in the last seven years.

The decision was an unexpected triumph for a handful of utilities, including Duke Energy, which complained that the agency had overstepped its authority. It was also an enormous setback for the nation’s air quality and the health of all Americans.

In practical terms, the decision will invite power plant operators across the country to stop installing new pollution-control equipment required under the E.P.A.’s rule. To ensure that doesn’t happen, the administration should move quickly to fashion a new rule that can pass legal muster. If it does not, Congress must pass legislation that would accomplish the same ends.

The 2005 rule was aimed at sharply reducing power plant emissions of sulfur dioxide, which creates acid rain, and nitrogen oxides, which create smog. The government estimated that cutting those emissions could help prevent 17,000 premature deaths annually by 2015. The rule covered emissions in 28 states east of the Mississippi River. It was aimed at pollution that blows eastward from coal-fired power plants in the Midwest, threatening not only human health but the environment — in New York’s case, the streams and forests of the Adirondacks.

The unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel from the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit was murky. The bottom line, though, is that the court agreed with Duke’s argument that in requiring sharper pollution reductions than those called for in the 1990 Clean Air Act, the E.P.A. had essentially usurped Congress’s authority.

The overwhelming majority of utilities did not challenge the rule, nor did the industry’s trade association. And some legal experts believe that the court — which has rightly struck down other administration rules that sought to weaken the Clean Air Act — erred in this instance. But the plain fact is that the rule no longer exists, and steps must be taken to replace it.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Surprisingly, Oil Declines for 2nd Day

NY Times
July 9, 2008


HOUSTON — Oil prices headed in an unusual direction — down — for the second consecutive day on Tuesday, leaving energy experts to wonder whether the drop is the beginning of a lasting trend or just a brief pause before another surge.

Oil settled at $136.04 a barrel, a drop of $5.33, or 3.8 percent. Analysts said the immediate causes included the strengthening of the dollar in recent days and the apparent veering northward of Bertha, the first hurricane of the 2008 hurricane season, meaning it was likely to miss the oil and natural gas facilities in the Gulf of Mexico.

They also noted that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran had dismissed the possibility that war with the United States and Israel was imminent in remarks to reporters in Kuala Lumpur, relieving worries that Iran might try to block oil shipments in the Strait of Hormuz.

The decline bolstered a rally in the stock market, with the Dow Jones industrial average rising 152.25 points, or 1.36 percent, to 11,384.21. The broader Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index ended up 1.71 percent, at 1,273.70, and the Nasdaq composite climbed 2.28 percent, to 2,294.44.

But even as a barrel of oil lost more than 6 percent of its value since the Fourth of July weekend, energy analysts warned that it was too soon to predict an outright collapse in prices. Some predicted that this was just one more in a series of pauses that has accompanied the volatile rise in oil prices from $60 last summer and just below $100 at the beginning of the year.

Others were just left bewildered.

Chip Johnson, the president and chief executive of Carrizo Oil and Gas, a Houston-based company, said he was “confused” by “such wild swings.” But he added: “I can’t see oil getting cheap again ever. It’s just too hard to find, and too many people want to use it.”

Any sustained decline in oil prices could help the consumer at a time when higher food and energy prices have forced many to cut back spending on other goods. It could also help the ailing automotive and airline industries, lower the trade deficit and strengthen the dollar. Prices for gold, silver, copper and corn also dropped on Tuesday.

But the factors bringing down oil prices over the last two days could be short-lived. Traders have been using oil as a hedge against the dollar in recent years, and there is no assurance the dollar will strengthen for long if the economy further weakens. Another hurricane could develop at any time, and the strongest normally come in August and September. Tensions in the Middle East, Nigeria and other oil-producing areas can always erupt to put pressure on tight reserves.

“I don’t think there has been any change in the overall direction of the oil market,” said Addison Armstrong, director of market research at Tradition Energy, an energy broker that deals with banks and hedge funds. “The bias is still clearly to the upside, with $150 firmly in the sights of traders.”

Consumers have felt no immediate relief at the pump. The price of the average gallon of regular unleaded gasoline on Tuesday remained at nearly $4.11, the same as the day before, and about a dime more than a month ago and $1.14 more than a year ago.

The rise in gasoline prices has not matched the rise in crude oil prices in recent months, largely because Americans are driving less, buying fewer gas-guzzling vehicles and using more mass transit.

MasterCard reported on Tuesday that American drivers decreased their consumption of gasoline in the days leading up to and including the holiday weekend by nearly 4 percent from the year before. It was the 21st consecutive week of lower gasoline consumption in comparison with last year.

So far, however, the decline in American oil consumption is being offset by increasing consumption in China, India, Latin America and in oil-producing countries. The Energy Information Administration, a United States government agency, reported that world oil consumption rose during the first half of 2008 by 520,000 barrels a day compared with the first half of 2007, even though consumption in the United States and other industrialized countries declined by 760,000 barrels a day.

The agency further projected that the average price this year for West Texas Intermediate Crude, the common benchmark price, would be $127, up from the 2007 average of $72 a barrel. Its projection for 2009 is $133 a barrel, slightly less than the current price.

But some energy experts say the price could drop further. They say it is possible that the kind of “demand destruction” for oil that is taking place in the United States and Europe could spread to China, India and other countries that subsidize gasoline and other energy supplies.

Governments in China, India, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia have cut subsidies at least modestly in recent months because of strains on their budgets, and further subsidy cuts are considered likely, especially if oil prices continue to go up. Once their consumers see higher prices, they would be expected to cut their consumption.

“I see the pressure mounting on China big time,” said Fadel Gheit, an energy analyst at Oppenheimer & Company. Mr. Gheit said he could foresee oil prices going as high as $170 by the end of the summer before plummeting. “The faster oil prices go up, the more severe the correction is going to be,” he added.

China is thought to have stockpiled oil supplies in recent months to assure adequate reserves of diesel fuel and gasoline for the Olympics in August and avoid embarrassing shortages while the country is trying to impress the world.

Once the Olympics are over, some energy experts predict the Chinese will decide to cut subsidies further and try to control oil imports, easing demand on world supplies and helping to bring crude prices down.

“There is no reason oil could not drop below $100 a barrel again,” said Phil Flynn, an energy analyst at the Alaron Trading Corporation. “You could see a substantial sell-off.”

James Crandell, an energy analyst at Lehman Brothers, said he also sees oil prices easing in the coming months but he offered several caveats.

“Hurricanes are the biggest upside risk for prices this summer,” he said, adding that “a conflict arising between Israel and Iran that would disrupt supplies would have an equal if not greater impact.”

Richest Nations Pledge to Halve Greenhouse Gas

NY Times
July 9, 2008


RUSUTSU, Japan — President Bush and leaders of the world’s richest nations pledged Tuesday to “move toward a low-carbon society” by cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050, the latest step in a long evolution by a president who for years played down the threat of global warming.

The declaration by the Group of 8 — the United States, Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Canada and Russia — was the first time that the Bush White House had publicly backed an explicit long-term target for eliminating the gases that scientists have said are warming the planet. But it failed to set a goal for cutting emissions over the next decade, and drew sharp criticism from environmentalists, who called it a missed opportunity.

On Wednesday, leaders of developing nations took up the climate change issue and said that they too supported “a long-term global goal for emission reductions,” but they were not specific and fell short of supporting the Group of 8 declaration.

In a sense, the Group of 8 document represents an environmental quid pro quo. In exchange for agreeing to the “50 by 2050” language, Mr. Bush got what he has sought as his price for joining an international accord: a statement from the rest of the Group of 8 that developing nations like China and India, which have not accepted mandatory caps on carbon emissions, must be included in any climate change treaty.

European leaders, who have long pressed Mr. Bush to take a more aggressive stance on global warming, said the declaration could enhance efforts to reach a binding agreement to reduce emissions when negotiators meet in Copenhagen next year under United Nations auspices.

“This is a strong signal to citizens around the world,” the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, told reporters. “The science is clear, the economic case for action is stronger than ever. Now we need to go the extra mile to secure an ambitious global deal in Copenhagen.”

The leaders of the eight industrialized countries, who gathered on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido for their annual meeting, spent months debating the language of Tuesday’s communiqué in lower-level talks. Critics said it was short on specifics, and that developed and developing countries would need to make much sharper cuts in emissions to head off the worst effects of global warming.

The statement left unclear, for instance, if the cuts made by 2050 would be pegged to current emissions levels, or 1990 levels, as many advocates had hoped.

A 50 percent cut from current levels would result in a smaller decrease by 2050 than Japan and European nations had envisioned under the Kyoto Protocol, the international climate agreement that the Bush administration rejected after it took office. Kyoto and earlier agreements had set 1990 as the baseline for cuts. The United States emitted about 20 percent more carbon dioxide in 2007 than it did in 1990.

“It is one step forward from the U.S. point of view, because President Bush has agreed that the United States, for the first time, must be bound by an international treaty,” said Philip E. Clapp, director of the Pew Environmental Group, who is here monitoring the negotiations. “But the emissions reduction goal is extremely weak; the language in the communiqué is almost meaningless.”

The White House painted the document as a victory.

“The G-8 is giving a lot, but the G-8 is also suggesting that others need to be part of that equation,” said James L. Connaughton, Mr. Bush’s top environmental adviser. “And that’s a very important shared statement.”

Mr. Bush did not speak publicly about it, although Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany raised the issue when she appeared briefly before cameras with the president, before the document was released. Mrs. Merkel, who has been pushing Mr. Bush to take a stronger stance on global warming, pronounced herself “very satisfied.”

Yet already, there are signs that the document could produce a rift between rich and poor nations. South Africa’s minister of environmental affairs, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, issued a blistering critique of Tuesday’s communiqué, calling it a concession to “the lowest common denominator” and expressing concern that it “may, in effect, be a regression from what is required to make meaningful change.”

Cutting emissions in half is one step in curtailing warming, climate experts have long said, because the main greenhouse gas generated by human activities, carbon dioxide, can persist for a century or more in the atmosphere, once it is released. As long as more is being emitted than the oceans or plants can absorb, its concentration will rise. And fuel emissions are projected to rise relentlessly, driven by quickly expanding economies in Asia.

For Mr. Bush, with just six months left in office, Tuesday’s declaration was part of a concerted effort to salvage his legacy on climate change. His reputation as an outlier on the issue was set in the earliest days of his administration, when he abandoned a campaign promise to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and refused to join the Kyoto Protocol because it did not apply to developing nations.

But over time, Mr. Bush’s stance has shifted. In 2005, he surprised Europeans when, on a trip to Denmark, he stated unequivocally that humans caused global warming.

Some advocates credit the Group of 8 with Mr. Bush’s shift. “The peer pressure on issues like climate change has helped,” Dennis Howlett, coordinator of the Canadian advocacy group Make Poverty History, said Tuesday.

On the way to last year’s Group of 8 meeting in Heiligendamm, Germany, Mr. Bush proposed his own process for grappling with global warming: a series of meetings involving so-called major emitters, including the developing nations China, India, Brazil, South Africa and Mexico, dubbed the Outreach Five.

Those leaders have been meeting this week in Sapporo, also on the island of Hokkaido, and on Tuesday they issued their own declaration, pledging, without specifics, to work toward reducing emissions in “a deviation from business as usual” if developing countries offered them financial assistance to do so.

“This is a positive answer to the G-8 leaders’ demand for action by all major emitters,” said David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington. “That’s news.”

Tuesday’s communiqué was not the end of the discussion here. On Wednesday, the Outreach Five leaders and their counterparts in South Korea, Indonesia and Australia joined the Group of 8 for a second round of talks and a declaration from the entire group was issued suggesting they believed developed countries should share the biggest portion of the climate change burden.

Alden Meyer, who is tracking the negotiations for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said Tuesday evening, “Developing countries want the industrialized world to do more.”

The climate paper was among a series of communiqués issued Tuesday on matters as varied as the rising food prices, the global economy, aid to Africa and the political crisis in Zimbabwe.

Environmentalists’ feelings were perhaps best summed up in an ad in The Financial Times on Tuesday, placed by, an international online advocacy group. It showed the faces of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, Mr. Bush and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada pasted on the Japanese cartoon character Hello Kitty.

“Hello Kiddies,” the headline read. “Be a grown-up. Set 2020 climate targets now.”

Monday, July 07, 2008

KENNEBEC COMMUTER: Saving gas: The myths and the facts


Staff Writer


As the Kennebec Commuter, we’re used to being bombarded with supposed “tips and tricks” from a plethora of sources on how to save gas and the almighty dollar.
Drivers need to be wary of some tips and tricks, though, as they entice you, the driver, to put more money into your car. As a wise man — better known as the Kennebec Commuter’s old man — once said, “You don’t spend money to save money” (or maybe that was “to make money.” Well, the bottom line is, you don’t spend cash to do either).

We decided to call Jessica Lin, a spokeswoman for the Alliance to Save Energy, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit dedicated to (you guessed it) saving energy. This group, which works closely with the Oakridge National Lab (part of the federal Department of Energy), has assembled a web site concerning myths, tips and tricks drivers can use to save gas. Even we learned a thing or two. Check it out at

MYTH: Change your oil every 3,000 miles for better fuel efficiency. You loyal readers already know the drill with this one. Oil changes every 3,000 miles are not necessary for every make or model of vehicle; most can go between 5,000 to 7,500 miles before a trip to your mechanic is needed. In fact, having the oil changed every 3,000 can cost you more money over time and just ups your oil consumption.

FACT: Turning off your air conditioner. The Kennebec Commuter first heard about this one in college. A friend said turning off the A/C actually saves fuel. Though we abhor rolling down the windows and having our hair fly around while we sweat to death this summer, this tip is actually true. Consumer Reports found shutting off the A/C and rolling down the windows in the city shaves a mile off per gallon.

MYTH: Turning the car back on rather than letting it idle consumes more fuel. No. In fact, Consumer Reports recommends to drivers if they will be stopped for an extended amount of time, say, several minutes at a railroad crossing or in bumper-to-bumper traffic, turning the vehicle off will save fuel. Idling ultimately uses more gas.

FACT: Driving slower saves gas. We admit it: We were skeptical for a long time about this one. And even if it does work, we reasoned, you’d create a traffic back-up, enticing a wicked case of road rage. Well, serve us a huge slice of humble pie. Vincent Caccese, a professor of structural mechanics at the University of Maine, set the record straight.
“It’s not a myth,” Caccese said. “There is truth to it. If (the engine) were to run at 80 miles per hour — not that I would recommend doing that — it won’t run as efficiently as it would at 60 miles per hour.”
Alliance for Saving Energy spokeswoman Jessica Lin added that every five miles per hour over 60 mph equals another 20 cents in gas.

MYTH: Using cruise control eats up more gas. On frequent trips to Boston, the Kennebec Commuter has noticed using the cruise control seems to take more fuel than just putting the pedal to the metal. It appears, however, using the cruise control while driving on the interstate for extended distances may serve the driver better.
Why? Let’s go back to the idea of driving slower. If you leave the cruise control on 60 mph (the optimal speed on several, though not all, models of vehicles), the vehicle is operating at its finest and most efficient. Remember, speeds in increments of five miles per hour over 60 means you’re going to start losing money.

Follow Meghan Malloy’s commuter blog and track the cheapest gasoline prices in town daily at

Tighten homes now for winter

By Kevin Miller
Saturday, July 5, 2008 - Bangor Daily News

With new record fuel prices arriving daily and another New England winter looming, many Maine homeowners are exploring every possible avenue to make their abodes more energy-efficient.

But energy experts offer homeowners a few words of advice before embarking on a costly home improvement bonanza.

First, start planning now.

Second, get audited.

Finally, pick off the proverbial "low-hanging fruit," such as drafty attic nooks, before emptying the bank account on the more ambitious fixes or upgrades.

"You can have a whole bunch of cellulose [insulation] dumped into an attic and the attic still leaks," said Richard Riegel Burbank, a certified energy auditor from Rockland. "It’s equivalent to having an Energy Star refrigerator with the door open."

Winter may be months away, but already some of Maine’s leaders are calling the coming heating season everything from a "crisis" to a "catastrophe." Regardless, many Maine homeowners should be bracing for a brutal season financially.

The professionals who conduct what are known as "home energy audits" already are being flooded with calls from people desperate for help as they face having to shell out twice as much for fuel oil and propane as they did a year or two ago.

"We’ve got a couple months’ worth of work, for sure," said Michael Bush, director of home performance at the Penquis agency, which launched a fee-based auditing service earlier this year.

Energy auditors typically use infrared cameras and specially designed high-powered fans to detect cool spots, underinsulated areas and places where cold air creeps in or heated air rushes out. These auditors will recommend fixes and, in some cases, return afterward to see how they worked.

In Maine, auditors are certified by either the Maine State Housing Authority or through the national Building Performance Institute.

Randy Bridges, who manages Penquis’ weatherization program for qualified low-income households, said many homeowners could find the biggest bang for their buck by looking in the attic. But before laying down lots of insulation, people need to locate and seal up leaks in the roof, joints, chimney and walls.

"A lot of homeowners right now are just blowing in insulation and they are making our job more difficult because they are covering up the air leaks," said Bridges, whose program offers weatherization assistance to about 200 participants in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

But Bridges and Burbank, who runs Evergreen Home Performance, both pointed out that many homeowners spend too much time focusing on the attic and not enough on the basement.

Building materials are assigned insulation scores on the "R-value" scale, which measures a material’s resistance to heat flow. The higher the R-value, the better the insulation that material provides.

Burbank said uninsulated wood walls are rated at R4, while a concrete foundation wall is rated around R1. By comparison, the U.S. Department of Energy’s most recent fact sheet recommends installing R49 insulation in the attic of a new home built in Bangor.

Many homeowners can make a bigger difference by addressing those low-rated surfaces, such as the exposed foundation, than by adding more insulation to an already insulated attic, Burbank said. At the same time, they can dramatically improve energy efficiency by addressing drafty areas in hollow walls and around the so-called "chimney chase."

"All of these hollow spaces become ductwork … to lose heat faster," Burbank said.

Another area auditors identified for possible savings is upgrading to a more efficient water heater. Then there are the more costly home improvements, such as purchasing a supplemental heat source, replacing a furnace or installing new, energy-efficient windows.

But John Kerry with Maine’s Office of Energy Independence and Security said the other key to energy savings is becoming more conservation-minded. This involves simple steps such as turning off the lights, turning down the thermostat and thinking about your energy usage throughout the day, he said.

"Obviously, the best kilowatt is the kilowatt that is not [produced] and the best Btu is the Btu that is not burned," Kerry said.

The energy crisis in Maine likely will be exacerbated by the fact that the state’s housing stock is among the oldest in the country. But auditors cautioned that just because a house is new doesn’t automatically mean it is energy-efficient.

Bush recounted how one house he visited recently had a woefully inadequate amount of insulation in the attic, and it was less than 10 years old.

"The presumption that because it’s new it’s good is not always true," Bush said.

A big part of the problem, according to Maine Home Performance building analyst Tom Boothby, is that many of the contractors who build homes in Maine are not up to speed on the latest recommendations for maximizing energy efficiency.

Maine Home Performance certifies evaluators through the national home performance program, which examines how the entire house functions as a system, from energy efficiency to air quality, moisture levels and heating system combustion safety.

Boothby gave the example of a contractor covering up a leak in the attic with fiberglass insulation. All the fiberglass will do is filter the air, not stop it, he said.

"Many builders don’t get this, let alone homeowners," Boothby said.

Another problem, Boothby said, is there are not enough certified auditors spread throughout the state. Interest in Maine Home Performance’s training and certification program is growing as demand for auditors increases, however.

For a list

of home energy auditors certified by either Maine State Housing Authority or the national Building Performance Institute, go to: or

Turning away from oil

Lewiston Sun Journal

By Carol Coultas , Staff Writer
Sunday, July 6, 2008

MECHANIC FALLS - It was an idea that had been noodling around in Hal Bumby's mind for more than 25 years.

But it wasn't until oil hit the $4-a-gallon mark with no relief in sight that Bumby finally decided to convert his wood products company to geothermal heat.

"My goal is to get us off of oil," said Bumby, president of Maine Wood Treaters on Walker Road. "I don't need Iran or Venezuela telling me what to do."

Bumby is in the process of researching and installing a system that will pump water from 800 feet underground, into a system that extracts the heat, then returns the water back to the Earth.

He hopes to have it up and operational before this heating season begins. And to recoup his installation costs within a year.

"We go through a lot of oil here," said Bumby of the 44,000 square feet of buildings where raw lumber is treated for commercial uses, such as decks, fences and landscape design. He expects to save a tanker of oil - 8,000 gallons - per month with a geothermal system.

"The problem is that we're spending a fortune for oil from foreign countries, which is like a tax on our economy," Bumby said.

By his calculations, he'll save at least $200,000 in oil costs this season with the new system. He expects that will be enough to offset the increased electrical costs for the geothermal system and its installation.

But his immediate problem is finding contractors who are experienced enough with industrial applications of geothermal heat to create the system. He's meeting with one engineering firm next week to get a quote.

"There's little expertise locally," Bumby said.

That's not a surprise, said John Kelly, executive director of the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association, a trade group that promotes geothermal heat. While geothermal heat is widely used in other parts of the United States and internationally, it's a relatively rare technology in the Northeast.

"It's growing in New England," said Kelly, who noted he fields more calls inquiring about conversions from oil than any other type of inquiry. But there are fewer IGSHPA-certified geothermal contractors in the Northeast than other parts of the country, and most of those are geared toward residential systems, not industrial. (A list of certified Maine contractors is available at

Bumby said his staff worked out various scenarios, deciding to use the plant's existing well, which extends 800 feet into the ground where groundwater remains at a balmy 56 degrees year round. At 1,000 feet it would have reached 60 degrees, and gets progressively warmer the farther down you drill, Bumby said.

"If you go down miles, you get some pretty high temperatures," he said. "But we need the technology to use it."

Geothermal also dovetails nicely with the company's efforts to go green.

"We promote ourselves as using sustainable forest products, and geothermal is a green heating system," Bumby said. "It ties into the whole concept."

Maine Wood Treaters stopped using arsenic long ago to treat lumber and instead uses a process certified by the Scientific Certification Systems of San Francisco, the group that awards its trademark green cross to environmentally friendly products. Additionally, the vast supply of wood at Maine Wood Treaters comes from sustainably managed forests.

"If you buy pressure-treated wood from a dealer, it's probably our product," Bumby said. "Our market share among independents is very good. We don't sell to big boxes."

It's just another facet of being green.

"I justified getting into this business because making wood last longer is, in my mind, an environmental good," Bumby said. "I've always thought we were a green industry. Now we're just taking it a step further."

Hydrogen-powered car advocates optimistic about local possibilities

A Portland-area fueling station could be in place within the next couple of years, they say.

Portland Press Herald

July 6, 2008

Rick Smith has been talking about hydrogen-powered cars for more than 15 years. And finally, with gasoline at $4 a gallon and the recent rollout of the world’s first commercially produced hydrogen cars, people seem to be listening.

“They don’t think I’m crazy any more,” said Smith, a Portland-based real estate attorney and the founder of Maine’s Hydrogen Energy Center.

Hydrogen cars are making a splash these days in a few major markets, especially southern California. Honda last month began marketing the first commercially produced hydrogen fuel cell cars around Los Angeles, a market that has a cluster of fueling stations as well as Hollywood stars eager to pay $600 a month in leasing fees for the newest green vehicle.

While Maine may not be a critical-mass market like California, Smith and other hydrogen advocates say the state could still be on the hydrogen highway map within a couple of years because of a plan to create a small Portland-area fueling station to serve the first fuel-cell vehicles.

“We’ll get them here, too,” Smith said.

Hydrogen has long been considered the ultimate replacement for oil. It can be made from water, power anything that runs on petroleum or electricity, and it creates little or no air pollution. Advocates claim it could end wars, stimulate the domestic economy and slow global warming.

It’s already been used for decades to power rockets and in industrial applications, and is now used to run Wal-Mart’s forklifts.


Hydrogen cars, however, are likely still a decade away from being widely available here, in large part because there are no places to fill up. There also is resistance to the technology, mostly because it takes energy to make the hydrogen, and concern that the promise of a futuristic “silver bullet” will discourage conservation and energy efficiency in the short term.

Smith created the Hydrogen Energy Center in 1992 after learning that hydrogen could power cars without polluting the air. He also saw the potential for keeping energy dollars in the local economy and creating jobs. His goal for the past 16 years has been to establish a fueling station that uses renewable wind or solar energy to extract hydrogen from water, and use it to generate electricity for a fleet of clean cars.

“We could replace our oil in less than 10 years. We could probably do it in five years, and you created a pile of jobs and there’s no more pollution,” he said.

Smith and other leaders of the effort say they’re closer than ever.

In March, a Connecticut-based hydrogen developer got a $1.9 million federal grant to build a new-generation electrolizer – the machine that uses electricity to extract hydrogen from water. Avalence LLC is the company that built Maine’s only existing hydrogen energy station – it provides backup electricity to Chewonki Foundation in Wiscasset – and it is looking to Maine as a possible site to demonstrate its newest machine.

“If Avalence can build it, we’ll find a place for it,” Smith said.

The Hydrogen Energy Center already has a potential site. It has been leasing a vacant industrial lot off Wallace Avenue in South Portland for the purpose, and plans to seek funding from the Maine Technology Institute to create the fueling station and install a wind turbine or solar panels to power it. The cost of the project is uncertain, but the group expects to ask for at least $2 million later this year.

The idea also is generating interest from private developers who may help finance – or host – the project, he said.

The fueling station would have a small initial capacity of 30 kilograms of hydrogen per day, enough to fuel several vehicles for local travel. A fuel cell car can typically travel 60 miles on one kilogram.

The small size and large cost means the initial station would not make a profit. Once it demonstrates the technology, however, it could be converted into a commercial-scale station able to fuel a larger fleet, Smith said.

There are about 60 existing stations in the United States, with the closest now in Burlington, Vt., and South Windsor, Conn., according to the National Hydrogen Association.

Although water can be used to make hydrogen, most stations get the hydrogen from natural gas because the process is less expensive. Fueling stations can now generate hydrogen at a cost comparable to between $3 and $6 per gallon of gasoline, said Patrick Serfass, a spokesman for the association.

“The technology to produce hydrogen affordably is not a barrier,” Serfass said. “I think everyone is noticing that we need more vehicles and more fueling stations. The trick is for them to come out in the same places.”

Big markets such as Los Angeles and New York will get the large stations and vehicles first, he said. But there also will be small pockets in places like Maine, where proponents are putting together demonstration projects. The idea is clearly a novelty here.

Quirk Chevrolet in Portland had a fuel cell vehicle – a Chevy Equinox – on its lot last month as part of a traveling demonstration. The vehicle is expected to be in commercial production in 2010.

“People really couldn’t get enough of the fact that you could walk around the back and breathe in the air coming out of it,” said Rob St. Clair, marketing manager at Quirk. “The whole problem right now with the vehicles is there’s no refueling infrastructure. As soon as we can do that, then the door’s open.”


Hydrogen is no longer widely seen as a silver bullet, however. A big reason is that it takes power to make hydrogen from water – the cleanest method – and that it’s inefficient to convert the hydrogen back into power for use in vehicles or homes.

Advocates say the answer is to use surplus power from renewables, such as solar or wind.

Many conservationists also are wary about hydrogen’s promises because they can be used as an excuse not to conserve energy, finance mass transit or make conventional cars fuel efficient.

“I would hate to see a speculative, potential future energy source distract us from the more urgent and more difficult task of making our existing energy system cleaner and more efficient,” said Steve Hinchman, a lawyer with the Conservation Law Foundation in Brunswick. “While I support development of a clean alternative like hydrogen, I would hate to see it draw money from the things we have to do now ... Maine desperately needs ways to get its people to work this summer.”

Steve Linnell, coordinator of Maine Clean Communities and a supporter of the fueling station plan, said both things have to happen.

“I see it as one of many fuels that we need to develop to replace our addiction to petroleum. There is no one fuel that could ever replace the amount of petroleum that we got used to using,” he said.

What’s frustrating to hydrogen advocates, Linnell said, is that there had been little support for developing the technology until now, and it can’t be made available quickly.

“We used to say hydrogen is the fuel of the future and it always will be,” he said. “I would say now it still may be the fuel of the future, but it seems to be getting closer.”

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

Banks see silver lining in rising energy prices

Some Maine lenders are introducing incentive programs with special terms for consumers who want to buy hybrid cars or pellet stoves. Others are loaning money simply so people can pay for oil this winter.

By TUX TURKEL, Staff Writer

July 6, 2008

Sometimes, it takes some green to go green.

As Mainers scramble this summer to buy gas-stingy cars and wood-burning stoves, area banks and credit unions are discovering a new opportunity to lend money.

Lenders recently have picked up on the fact that many people can't translate good intentions into energy efficiency without financing. So they've begun introducing incentive programs with special terms, and are teaming up with retailers, such as stove shops.

Even so, these programs may be hard-pressed to meet demand. Some stove dealers already are selling out of equipment. State housing officials say they don't have enough banks to process loans. And in a sign of the times, some lenders are loaning money just so people can pay for heating oil this winter.

Maine banking groups currently are surveying their members to get a sense of what programs are going to be available to help residents cope with crushing energy costs.

"There's a lot of time and effort being put on this right now," said Mark Walker, vice president and general counsel at the Maine Bankers Association.

It's only been in the past 12 months or so, Walker said, that customers have begun clamoring for energy-related financing. Many banks are just now figuring out how to respond.

One of the pioneers in this new wave of green lending is Franklin Savings Bank in Farmington.

For the past year, borrowers have been able to get a half-point discount on loan interest rates if they buy cars that get 35 miles per gallon or higher. That currently translates into a rate of 5 percent. The bank, which does business in Franklin, Oxford and Somerset counties, so far has loaned more than $1.2 million for gas-sipping cars and other energy-efficient products.

This is how the bank figures the math: If it lends money for a gas-guzzling truck or SUV and needs to repossess the vehicle, chances are it will take a big loss in the resale market. The bank would rather loan for hybrids and other high-mileage wheels, which are more likely to retain their value.

"It's less risk for us," said Andrew Sturtevant, the bank's administrative vice president for loan services.

Sturtevant, perhaps more than most bankers, is tuned in to energy-efficient transportation. He commutes 40 miles round-trip from his home in Fayette on a Dutch-made pedal vehicle that's backed up by tiny electric and gasoline motors.

At Franklin Savings, borrowers are offered a discounted rate on home-equity loans for solar and wind installations. And through a recent partnership with the Northern Lights stove shop in Farmington, customers can get discounted loans up to $5,000 for pellet stoves.

Historically, Sturtevant said, banks weren't anxious to lend money for heating equipment. The assumption was that every house had heat, and upgrades didn't change the market value much. But with so many home- owners struggling to pay their mortgages today, Sturtevant said, banks realize that customers who also face thousands of dollars in energy bills are at risk of defaulting on their loans.

"We feel it makes economic sense to hedge them against high heating costs," he said.


The program has been good for Northern Lights. Marty Farnum, a co-owner of the stove shop, estimates that roughly a third of his customers need a loan.

The problem now, Farnum said, is that the store has sold 100 pellet stoves so far this year and probably won't get any more from the manufacturer. He's got nearly as many people on a waiting list for 2009.

Availability is also an issue at Aubuchon Hardware in Portland.

The chain last month formed a partnership with Northeast Bank to help residents buy wood and pellet stoves. Bank fliers in the stores tell people about the low-interest, unsecured loans. Robert O'Brien, assistant manager at the Portland store, recently sold a $1,499 stove to a resident who saw the bank promotion and got a loan.

O'Brien would like to sell more pellet stoves through Northeast Bank, but the eight units he received late last month were sold within days, including the store's display model.

For Northeast Bank, though, awareness of its Green Energy Solutions program can help forge valuable, long-term connections. The bank formed a financing partnership last month with Maine Energy Systems, the Bethel-based company importing a European-made pellet boiler. Northeast is offering 100 percent financing for residents to switch to pellet-fired central heat, at a cost of roughly $12,000.

Offering a loan that size gives the bank an opportunity to sit down with customers and examine their finances, according to Jim Delamater, Northeast's president and chief executive officer. That relationship could lead to helping a customer restructure debt, or suggesting other financial products or services.

"It gives us access to people who are looking for advice," he said.


Another availability issue is cropping up at the Maine State Housing Authority, which offers low-interest energy loans to residents who meet income guidelines. Improvements include new heating systems, insulation and air sealing.

The agency's Home Energy Loan Program pays private lenders to process its loans, but only six have signed up. No banks north of Bangor have agreed to participate, according to Kim Weed, the program's director, leaving a gap in applications from Aroostook County.

"I have people calling me every day, but there's only a limited amount of banks I can refer them to," Weed said.

Some banks, on their own, are offering loans for a wide range of energy improvements.

A month-old program at Bath Savings Institution allows customers to borrow from $1,000 to $25,000 at preferential rates for improvements including insulation, windows, heating systems and solar and wind installations. Purchases must meet certain energy efficiency and contractor guidelines to qualify. Bath Savings also has a Green Auto Loan aimed at hybrid vehicles, with a quarter-point discount.

A program with very attractive terms -- a 2.99 percent annual percentage rate -- is being introduced this month by Casco Federal Credit Union, which has offices in Westbrook and Gorham. Customers can borrow up to $3,000 for a year and use it to buy wood and pellet stoves, and high-efficiency gas and propane units.

"We're basically not in it to make money," said Jim Stone, the credit union's president and chief executive officer. "This heating season is going to be tough for a lot of people, and we want to do our part."

Borrowers also can use that money to buy heating oil. In upcoming advertising, Casco is advertising the program as a "home fuel loan" to help customers lock in lower prices now. There's a demand for this financing, Stone said, although he's not happy about that.

"It's a sad state of affairs to borrow money to fill your tank," he said.

Staff writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or

LURC to take up final wind farm plan

Lewiston Sun Journal

By Donna M. Perry , Staff Writer
Monday, July 7, 2008

The Maine Land Use Regulation Commission will take up TransCanada's proposed final development plan for a 44-turbine, 132-megawatt commercial wind power project in northern Franklin County when it meets Wednesday in Orono.

Commissioners approved a preliminary development plan and rezoning petition more than 2,000 acres for the proposed wind farm on Kibby Mountain and Kibby Range in Kibby and Skinner townships in March. In addition there are proposed power transmission lines, support structures and new roads.

The estimated cost of the development is $270 million, of which the turbines would constitute $166 million, the transmission line $20 million, and the remainder would be for the collector line system and substation, $15 million, turbine foundation sand turbine installation, $18 million, roads, $28 million, and other indirect costs, $23 million.

LURC staff is recommending the commission approve the final development plan with conditions detailed in the permit.

LURC will take up the plan at 10 a.m. Wednesday, July 9, at the Best Western Black Beer Inn at 4 Godrey Drive in Orono.

Officials look out for fuel fraud

By The Associated Press
Monday, July 7, 2008 - Bangor Daily News

LEWISTON, Maine - Homeowners Paul and Linda Martin thought that $300 for two cords of green firewood seemed too good to be true. And the stack that was delivered seemed small.

State worker Carl Blanche informed the Auburn couple that their instincts were right. After making measurements and punching numbers, Blanche delivered the news that they had received only 1.13 cords of wood. He promised to call the seller out of Peru.

"Is this bad? Yeah, this is bad. Have I seen worse? Oh, yeah," said Blanche, who works for the Department of Agriculture’s Division of Quality Assurance and Regulation.

Blanche suspects many people don’t know he exists, but his job is to make sure firewood companies and gas stations don’t short customers.

With fuel prices high, public complaints are up fourfold over last year, mostly from consumers who think they’ve been ripped off by a wood dealer or at the fuel pump.

"We’re all behind the eight ball trying to keep up," said Division Director Hal Prince, who has 17 consumer protection inspectors. Currently, only three of them focus on weights and measures.

Since 2007, firewood calls have increased dramatically, Prince said. As heating oil has doubled in price, more people have gotten into the firewood business. And some of the newcomers don’t realize that the state regulates the industry.

A standard cord should measure 4-by-4-by-8-feet stacked, or 128 cubic feet. A "thrown cord" can be a little less: 115 cubic feet.

Blanche, whose turf stretches loosely from Waterville to Kittery, said if an errant firewood dealer makes good right away, then it’s case closed. If there’s a pattern or particularly severe offense, he will forward information to the Attorney General’s Office.

Since 2006, the state has sued two wood sellers. Both agreed to civil penalties in the thousands of dollars, in addition to restitution, without admitting wrongdoing.

"We haven’t been able to get back the money. On the other hand, they’re not selling anymore," said Assistant Attorney General James McKenna.

On a recent day, Blanche wrapped up his work in Naples, where he performed a surprise check at a gas station after a complaint from a customer.

Blanche introduced himself to owner David McGowan and brought a pair of $1,800 metal measuring containers over to the pumps. Then he pumped five gallons of regular from the hose in question. It produced just a hair over five true gallons.

"So we’re golden. I knew we would be," said McGowan.

Despite its actions against firewood companies, the Attorney General’s Office hasn’t sued a gas station for chronically shorting customers, according to a spokesman.

Prince said his office gets between five and 10 calls a day, mostly from people concerned about gasoline. Motorists have complained about pumps that seem to jump up as much as 50 cents before the gas starts flowing and gallons that don’t seem like true gallons.

A lot of old pumps in Maine couldn’t handle the move to $4 a gallon, Prince said. And it’s not legal to sell by the half-gallon, a common fix.

"A good number of complaints we’re getting are from consumers who don’t realize it was in half-gallons," he said. "It’s a rude surprise to them."

Experts: Renewable energy crucial for Maine

By Kevin Miller
Monday, July 7, 2008 - Bangor Daily News

Former Gov. Angus King is calling it a "catastrophe" and perhaps "the most serious crisis ever to face the state of Maine."

U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe warned recently that parts of Maine could "become uninhabitable" for some people this winter as the price of heating oil climbs ever higher.

Other Maine leaders are only slightly less gloomy, calling the coming heating season a "crisis" requiring immediate action from homeowners, state government and federal officials in Washington, D.C.

Record energy costs are pinching all Americans in the wallet. But Mainers could be among the nation’s hardest-hit, especially if oil prices continue their trend.

Consider these alarming statistics:

ä 80 percent of Maine households use heating oil, which is the highest percentage in the country.

ä Nearly three-quarters of the electricity generated in Maine comes from oil or natural gas, which is also higher than both the New England and national averages.

ä Mainers use more gasoline per capita than residents of every other state in the nation except two.

ä Maine houses are on average among the oldest in the country.

"This isn’t business as usual," King told attendees of a wind and tidal energy seminar recently. "This is a disaster in the state of Maine that is coming at us … This is a human catastrophe that is coming at us in terms of energy."

In response, Maine must get creative and move quickly to bring renewable energy projects on line, King said. The outspoken former governor is most enthusiastic about wind energy and is a principal in a company, Independence Wind, that hopes to develop wind farms.

Several energy experts were more tempered than King in their assessments of Maine’s energy situation. But they agreed that renewable energy sources offer the key to Maine and the nation becoming better insulated from the volatile fossil fuel market.

Stephen Connors, a longtime researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Laboratory for Energy and the Environment, said lessening Maine’s dependence on oil unfortunately falls into the "easier said than done" category.

At present, most of the wind-energy facilities proposed for Maine have been located in rural, sparsely populated areas with good wind resources. Once you get away from those few areas, however, siting wind farms becomes more problematic both from a wind resource and public relations standpoint, Connors said.

He said there is the problem of Maine’s aging electricity transmission system, which is not capable of handling output from additional industrial energy facilities. Two utilities, Central Maine Power and Maine Public Service Co., submitted applications last week to overhaul the state’s transmission lines in part to accommodate large wind farms proposed for northern Maine.

Connors predicted it could be 2020 before wind energy can really "take off" as a major source of energy for the region. In the meantime, Maine and other states need to look at every possible energy source, including biomass and tidal facilities.

"We’re going to need everything," said Connors, who directs MIT’s Analysis Group for Regional Energy Alternatives. "It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation to address both weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels and climate change."

University of Maine economist Jonathan Rubin said it is clear that the crisis will be extremely difficult in the short term for low-income individuals, the elderly and those in rural areas who must commute long distances.

But Rubin said over the long run, the state can reap significant benefits from the situation.

Homeowners will invest in energy efficiency and conservation. New-car buyers are already shifting toward gas-sipping vehicles, which will eventually filter down into the used-car market. And both of those trends are helpful in addressing climate change, Rubin said.

Another silver lining, Rubin said, is that as fossil fuel prices rise, renewable energy sources become more competitive. Maine, with its vast resources in terms of wind, tidal and forest resources, should be able to capitalize on the emerging market.

"I’m optimistic about the future, actually," Rubin said.

John Kerry, who heads Maine’s Office of Energy Independence and Security, said the crisis underscores the need for a clear national energy policy.

In the meantime, Gov. John Baldacci has put together a task force to prepare for the coming heating season and find ways to fund programs for those in need. Possible funding sources include bonds, federal grants and revenues generated by Maine’s participation in a regional cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gases, Kerry said.

"We are not waiting for anybody; we are taking action on our own," Kerry said. "We know that people are hurting."