Action urged for Maine’s energy future

Posted Jan. 15, 2010, at 10:08 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Given the fact that 80 percent of Maine homes are still heated with oil — and that Mainers pay the highest electricity rates in the nation, once income is factored in — it’s clear the state must find more efficient ways to live and do business if it is to thrive in the future.

Compounding the crisis are the state’s aging housing stock and cold winters, participants noted Friday during a gathering focused on energy efficiency held on the University of Maine campus.

Corinth Wood Pellets president George Soffron likened the current energy crisis to a battle for the state’s economic future.

“We’re at war,” he said. “We’re on the front lines and we’re vulnerable, and if we don’t act aggressively, we’ll be casualties.”

The first of three such sessions being held this month by the board of Efficiency Maine Trust, Friday’s “stakeholder input” meeting drew nearly 50 people, including utility and energy leaders, policymakers, academics and analysts.

Efficiency Maine Trust was formed last year by the Legislature to bring the state’s numerous energy-related programs under one roof and to develop energy efficiency, weatherization and clean energy programs for all energy users.

The point is to come up with a plan to help Maine residents and businesses tap Maine’s cost-effective energy efficiency potential, save millions of dollars, reduce global warming pollution, and create jobs for Maine people, according to a press release from Efficiency Maine.

A background document provided to participants stated that the four primary goals set by state lawmakers call for:

— Weatherizing 100 percent of the state’s homes and 50 percent of its businesses by 2030.

— Reducing peak-load electricity use by 100 megawatts by 2020.

— Reducing the use of liquid fossil fuels by at least 30 percent by 2030.

— Achieving electrical and natural gas savings of at least 30 percent, and heating fuel savings of at least 20 percent, by 2020.

“These are very ambitious goals. The question is how do we get there,” said moderator Steve Ward, former state public advocate.

The trust, Ward said, has been given the assignment of developing a three-year energy efficiency strategy to be submitted to the Legislature this spring.

Based on discussions at Friday’s meeting in Orono, the task won’t be easy, with participants from a variety of interests and industries advocating for a mix of remedies, ranging from wood pellets and natural gas to solar power and geothermal heat pumps, to name a few.

“There is no one magic bullet,” conceded David Bouffard, a mechanical engineer with the firm Woodard & Curran. “There really is no easy answer.”

Bouffard noted, however, that even the best strategies won’t work unless they start with weatherization.

“It’s got to be a priority,” he said. “Otherwise, you’re still wasting energy, you’re just wasting it more efficiently.”

The gathering also brought out some ideas new to Maine.

One idea that Maine has yet to consider is a mechanism for financing low-interest loans for energy efficiency-related home improvements through property taxes, which William Strauss, president of the Bethel-based data analysis firm FutureMetrics, said has been made available in more than a dozen other states, including Vermont.

An advantage of the concept is that it has a “very, very low default rate” because the loans are attached to the specific property, so if ownership changes, the state, county or municipality providing it still gets its money, he said.

“Maine needs to encourage households to stop heating with oil or Maine’s economy will suffer as the drain of dollars out of households and out of state increases,” Strauss said. He also cited data from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Bureau of Economic Analysis to show that average residential electricity rates, when adjusted for median income levels, are higher in Maine than anywhere else in the continental U.S.

The trust’s two other meetings are set for Jan. 22 at the University of Southern Maine in Portland and Jan. 29 at the Cross Office Building in the State House Complex in Augusta.

For more information about the state’s energy initiative, go to Efficiency Maine’s Web site at www.efficiencymaine.org. Those unable to attend a meeting before Jan. 29 can send written comments to info@efficiencymainetrust.org or to Efficiency Maine Trust, State House Station 19, Augusta, ME 04333-0019.

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