GUEST COLUMN

Maine on the Brink

Posted March 04, 2011, at 6:14 p.m.
Last modified March 07, 2011, at 10:04 a.m.

Maine is facing the most serious challenge in her history, an impending catastrophe which threatens our economy and the very viability of our state as a place to live and work.

The challenge is the price of energy, and specifically, the price of oil, which is the basic building block our entire economy. It’s no secret that gasoline and heating oil prices are going up, and very few people think the end is in sight. What isn’t so well known is the impact on Maine.

Here are the stark figures — for every dollar that gasoline and heating oil go up, almost a billion dollars disappear from the Maine economy over the course of a year. That’s a billion dollars that Maine people don’t have to spend at the mall, the car dealer, the doctor’s office or for food.

This is more than the total collected by income tax in Maine each year. So in the last year, as fuel has gone up about a dollar, it’s as if we doubled the income tax but got nothing for it — no roads, no bridges, no schools, no police.

In 1998, the average Maine family spent about 4 percent of its income on energy (electricity, heating and transportation). Today, that percentage is almost 15 percent and if (more like “when” than “if”) fuel goes to $5 a gallon, that same family will have to spend almost 25 percent of its total income just to keep the lights on, keep warm and drive to work. When that happens, a lot of people simply won’t be able to make it.

When you include heating and transportation, almost 80 percent of our total energy use comes from oil, none of which — nada, zip, zilch — comes from within Maine. So if we want to tackle energy costs in Maine, oil for heating and transportation has to be the target. When oil prices are low, our level of dependency is no big deal; but when they suddenly explode — way faster than incomes — it is a huge deal, particularly for a state that is especially vulnerable because of our cold climate and far-flung geography.

This makes our energy dollars one of Maine’s largest exports. Every year, we send almost $5 billion in fossil fuel costs out of state — roughly twice the state’s annual budget. Generating 20 percent of this energy here in Maine using our own renewable resources would keep an additional $1 billion a year here and create and save jobs.

The only answer to this is get off oil, as much and as fast as we can. Conserving and switching to something like wood pellets can be a part of the solution, but the only way to do this on a large scale is to substitute electricity for oil — not just for lights and computers anymore, but more importantly, for heating and transportation.

Fortunately, technology is coming to the rescue, and not a moment too soon. We now have available several cost-effective electric heating options, including geothermal heat pumps and electric thermal storage (heating units that store electricity at night and release it as heat throughout the day) and, in the last year, three major auto companies have launched all-electric cars.

The real question is where all this new electricity will come from. Electrifying our heat load and transportation will approximately double electricity demand in Maine, far exceeding current generating capacity. So there have to be major new supplies. The important thing about electricity, however, is that it can be made from virtually any fuel source — natural gas (cheaper than oil, at least for now), biomass, hydro, wind or solar. Each has its pluses and minuses, but each can have a part to play.

Not surprisingly, we believe that wind can be especially important because it is locally produced, it generates more power in the winter when the need is the greatest, it generates substantial power at night when most of the heating and car-recharging takes place, it can offer long-term fixed prices (no fuel costs) and it is 100 percent renewable.

Maine has the largest wind resource in New England, both on- and off-shore. Within 50 miles of shore, for example, Maine has the equivalent of 60 nuclear power plants worth of wind, after accounting for wind’s intermittency. Although it will take some time to develop this offshore potential, on-shore wind is available now. It just makes sense to take advantage of this vast local resource; otherwise, we’re still in the energy import business one way or another.

If you don’t like wind, that’s fine, but just tell us which other box to check: stay with oil, a coal plant, more out-of-state natural gas, Hydro Quebec (whose recent contracts are pegged to the price of natural gas and would require major new transmission corridors) or maybe a nuclear plant. These options will still ship most of our energy dollars out of state.  As much as we might wish it, there is no impact-free solution to a problem of this magnitude.

This crisis is staring us right in the face, right now, this winter. And doing nothing is playing Russian roulette with the Maine economy. We don’t have the luxury of easing into alternatives to oil; after 50 years of talk, we now have to do something. And we have the tools; the question is whether we have the courage and imagination to use them.

Angus King is a former governor of Maine. Habib Dagher directs the DeepCWind Consortium and the Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the University of Maine.

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