by Gina Hamilton
New Maine Times news story
In this last of a series of Maine and its economy, we’ll look toward the future … Maine as an energy producer.
Yes, Maine is poised to become a net producer of energy, but only if we play our cards right. So far, it seems that we’re trying, but additional resources must be appropriated to make Maine a major player in the energy market.
What does Maine have going for it?
Maine is a largish state with a smallish population – 1.329 million at the last census – and the population tends to be thrifty, when it comes to energy use. Part of the reason for that is the appalling state of Maine’s housing stock, the oldest in the country, which badly needs some basic work to make homes more energy efficient, but in general, people say they keep their winter thermostats at an average of 65 degrees, and are careful about other energy use, turning off lights when not in use, unplugging appliances, and so on.
The reason for this is probably the relatively high electricity costs in the state. Compared to other non-New England states, Maine’s energy costs per kilowatt hour are fairly high. We pay 15.39 cents per kWh, compared to an average of 9.62 cents for residential energy nationwide.
Maine also pays more for gasoline than other states, largely because of our location at the end of the transportation line, but also because we have a lot of road repair necessary with the snowy, icy winters we experience, so our gas tax is a little higher than other states’s gas taxes.
In the not-too-distant past, Maine had strong public transit systems, at least in southern and coastal Maine, but most of those have gone by the boards with the advent of multiple private automobiles per household. However, the basic infrastructure … steamship wharves, train tracks, trolley lines in most towns of any size, and so on … are still there, and establishing a new system of moving people from place to place, especially in light of the fact that we have an aging population, is absolutely possible without major infusions of capital. Will we reestablish these means of transit as our population grows grayer, opening up a new way of moving from place to place for everyone in the process?
The future will tell.
The least expensive kilowatt hour is the one never used, so Maine’s hard-pressed construction industry is gearing up to do energy audits and energy retrofits of existing properties, including insulation, basement sealing, window and door replacements, and for major retrofits, dense hard foam insulation for the exterior of houses that make homes almost energy neutral. Done right, the home can be so well insulated that it can be heated with a refrigerator’s compressor and body heat of the inhabitants.
It is estimated that energy retrofits, if done on existing structures on a national scale, could save one trillion dollars over ten years, create 3.3 million jobs over the same period, cut energy consumption by 30 percent permanently, and reduce greenhouse emissions by 10 percent.
All by itself, that’s a worthy goal for Maine.
However, Maine has many other opportunities in energy, too.
Maine’s energy choices come down to wind, water, and wood, and to some extent, the Sun.
Currently, in Germany, solar panels are living side by side with wheat fields and barley fields. Germany gets less insolation than Maine, but they will be approaching 50 percent renewable energies by 2020, with 100 percent expected by 2050.
Maine could certainly join the solar revolution, especially now that the cost of solar panels has gone down and the longevity of the panels has gone up. Solar hot water with on-demand assists from natural gas would go a long way toward cutting electric use among homeowners, since the hot water heater is the largest electricity sink in a Maine home. Solar PV panels could provide some, most, or all of the rest of the electricity a household can use. That which is not used flows back through the lines and is racked up a credit, to be used at times when the sun is not shining.
Solar panels can be used to cover flat roofs of businesses, schools, and other public buildings. Within a few years, the initial investment is recouped, and for the remainder of their useful life, which could be as long as 35 years, the electricity is ‘free’.
A lot of passive solar energy can be used without any special equipment. Choosing to dry clothes on an outside line, orienting large windows in new construction toward the south, making sure indoor spaces have enough windows to permit light during daytime hours without using electricity, all make major differences in how much power is needed.
Wind is the greatest chance for Maine energy independence and energy export. Onshore wind could produce enough power, albeit intermittently, to power some 365,000 homes, a little less than half of all residential units. But offshore wind from the Gulf of Maine could power the entire Eastern Seaboard. Because wind power is intermittent, there are ways to use the energy to create methane on off-peak times, which could be used as natural gas in vehicles, as well as to replace propane in cooking stoves and in hot water assists, as well as energy for industry, and heating. Methane production sites on the coast would prevent Maine from having to bring in fuel on trains or via trucks.
With wind and solar, and the methane byproduct, Maine is well placed to produce enough energy to power homes and businesses in our state and throughout the East Coast. With wood pellets, Maine could heat homes and businesses using renewable wood products from the Maine woods.
Maine is already exporting a great deal of its wood products, including its wood pellets. The new plant in Eastport is planning to export pellets to Europe, creating 75 jobs at the site and another 300 or so in the woods. Wood pellet boilers and biomass furnaces are becoming almost commonplace in the state, and Maine homes are moving toward wood pellets as a primary heating source, according to Census records. Wood heating has jumped 96 percent in Maine over the last ten years, a good percentage of that pellets.
Other states, primarily in New England, are using more wood products for their primary heating sources, too.
Water is the other source of energy in Maine, and with the demise of many of its hydro dams, Maine is experimenting with tidal energy, which could be sited in many tidal rivers, especially in the Mid-coast and Downeast, as well as in small tidal bay inlets. Tidal energy could power coastal communities throughout the state, or, on small scales, power small harbor lights and gas pumps with tiny turbines connected beneath the docks. Tidal energy still has a way to go, but within 20 years, tidal will become a signifcant energy source for coastal Maine.
The real question is whether current favorable laws will continue to support alternative energies, made in Maine, or even expand the opportunities. A great deal depends on the outcome of the 2014 gubernatorial and Legislative elections in the state, as well as the Congressional election. If the elections go well for alternative energies, Maine could be energy independent year-round in as little as ten years, and become a net exporter of energy to other states, Canada and Europe, by mid-century.