By Vaughan Woodruff, Special to the BDN
Bangor Daily News op-ed
Earlier this summer I was invited to speak at Bowdoin College for an event hosted by Envision Maine titled “Maine’s Economy and Climate Change.” In my opening remarks I noted that a slight adjustment to the event’s title would describe a topic that is central to almost every rural community in Maine: the changing economic climate of our once vibrant communities.
If we were to predict the death of a town, what might it look like? Closed factories? A declining downtown? An aging population? Abandoned homes? A soft real estate market?
Too many of our rural communities are experiencing all these symptoms. To reverse this trend requires the immediacy that is often expressed by those concerned with the consequences of global climate change: We need to take immediate action to stave off a much more dire future.
As we watch the slow death of our rural communities around us, it is easy to perceive the climate change movement as a luxury of the rich. The perils of rising sea levels, extreme weather phenomena and the extinction or mass migration of animal and plant species tend to be more abstract and seem less immediate than the economic challenges we see everyday. It’s in our nature to focus on the more immediate threat.
Fortunately, it is becoming increasingly evident that measures to address global climate change will drive local economic development in our rural communities.
In Maine we have seen efforts to support more sustainable food networks and energy sources — two sectors with significant impacts on climate change. These serve important roles for our rural communities by increasing our local food and energy security, reducing energy costs and growing local small businesses. Our company, Insource Renewables, is working to redirect energy expenditures that are often sent out of state to large utility and fossil fuel companies by investing in local heat pump and solar projects. This work provides well-paying jobs that are buffered from the outsourcing trends that have emptied our mills.
We are not alone. Colleagues in Skowhegan, Dover-Foxcroft and Liberty are also securing our local food and energy sectors while providing economic opportunities in communities where they are sorely needed.
While showing some promise, these efforts require strong policy to expand their impact and reach the communities that need them the most. We have been subjected to local consequences of globalization for too long, and a comprehensive focus on building local energy economies is an easy lift as we work to reverse some of the economic trends we see in communities such as Pittsfield, Bucksport, Millinocket, Calais or Dexter. For example, expanding Maine’s solar industry can bridge the gap of energy inequality we see between our rural towns and those with easy access to Interstate 95 or natural gas infrastructure. In addition, the solar industry demands the type of technical professionals we have become too good at exporting because of a lack of opportunities for young graduates.
Nationally, we have seen the job benefits of increased solar capacity. Last year, solar jobs in the U.S. grew at 20 times the rate of the U.S. workforce as a whole. These jobs are well-paying, technical jobs that cannot be outsourced and do not cannibalize other jobs in our rural communities. Instead, they represent an attractive career pathway for our graduates or for millworkers and other professionals who have found themselves unemployed or working low-wage jobs because of limited opportunities close to home.
The recently released Clean Power Plan by the EPA focuses on addressing the impacts of our current energy infrastructure on climate. One key portion of the plan will more equitably compensate solar energy for its contributions to our current energy infrastructure and to mitigate the impacts of our energy supply on the climate. The results of this policy will open new doors for solar in Maine and allow us to move forward in an area where we have lagged behind the rest of our region.
Critics of solar expansion in Maine often characterize the technology as a luxury of the rich, ignoring this: Solar becomes accessible to more households and businesses in states where mature solar industries are able to offer leasing or equitably reimburse solar owners for the valuable energy they provide to the grid.
There is no silver bullet that will revive our communities but instead a combination of forward-thinking measures that address the unique challenges facing our communities. Without intending to do so, the EPA’s Clean Power Plan supports such efforts. It would be great to see Mainers embrace these types of policies that will serve to address our physical climate and our economic one.
Vaughan Woodruff is owner of Insource Renewables in Pittsfield.