Monday, July 07, 2008

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."


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