AUGUSTA, Maine — Governor Paul LePage wants to cut in half Maine’s reliance on oil for heating homes and businesses, but while the goal is drawing praise, many doubt it is realistic.
“Right now, 80 percent of our homes are heated with oil,” LePage said in a speech last week. “I’d like to lower heating oil from 80 percent to about 40 percent.”
He would like to reach that goal by the end of his current term in office, which ends in 2014. He said it could be achieved by shifting more urban areas to natural gas and rural areas to wood pellets.
“You need a hub, an anchor for natural gas and we are working on getting gas lines to Calais from the line going to the Woodland mill,” LePage said. He said talks also are underway to bring a line from Bangor Gas to the paper mill in Millinocket. He said that line could also serve Lincoln Pulp and Paper and some residential areas along the length of the pipeline.
LePage said there is already a growing market for wood pellets with modern furnaces that are efficient. He said it is important to reduce state dependence on oil as its dominant heating source.
“We are glad to hear we share the goal of reducing our dependence on oil,” said Dylan Voorhees of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “The question is, how we do it, and is it a realistic plan?”
He said both natural gas and wood pellets are alternatives that can be used, but he hopes the governor addresses the easiest way to reduce oil consumption: conservation.
“People can make investments in conservation that have three to one paybacks on every dollar invested,” he said. “With that money back in people’s pockets, than renewable energy sources are the next step.”
Voorhees said there are a also a lot of competing needs for Maine’s wood supply and the state needs to make sure its traditional uses are met as demand for pellets grows. He said if supplies of pellets are outstripped by demand, the cost will go up and make it a less desirable option for many home owners and businesses.
“He has set a very ambitious goal, but we do have to be ambitious to address this long term problem,” he said.
Rep. Stacy Fitts, R-Pittsfield, the co-chairman of the legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee said the Governor’s goal is “lofty” but agreed that the state needs to set high goals when it comes to its over dependence on oil.
“We certainly have the foundation in place to move in this direction,” he said. “I think timewise, and costwise, we are going to have to evaluate what people can afford. I just don’t know if we can reduce our oil use that much in just three years.”
Fitts said higher oil prices, less federal aid for poor Mainers and a forecast of colder than usual weather makes this winter a crisis. He said it may be necessary to divert some money from long-term goals like conversion to other fuels to make sure the poor can stay warm this winter.
“We have to do whatever it takes to keep people safe,” he said.
Fitts said the state already has a program in place to help with the financing of new furnaces by consumers. He said extraordinary times call for extraordinary goals and he praised the governor for setting a high goal.
Sen. Phil Bartlett, D-Gorham, is the democrat senator on the panel and agreed the governor’s goals are ambitious and will be difficult to reach.
“I don’t see how we could shift a significant number of people over to natural gas in the next three years, although I certainly support that effort,” he said.
Bartlett said there is also a significant barrier in that oil is simple to use and wood often is not. He said even with most pellet furnaces, a person will have to make it part of their daily routine to deal with the furnace. He said Maine has long had an over-reliance on oil for heat.
“We must encourage more use of Maine-based energy resources like biomass and decrease our over dependence on imported oil to heat our homes.” That quote could come from Gov. LePage. But it is not. It is from an interview with then Gov. Joseph Brennan, a Democrat, responding to the 1979 Iranian oil crises that saw home heating oil increase by 50 percent in a few weeks. Brennan set a goal of reducing use of oil to 50 percent of Maine homes without setting a timetable to reach that goal. Maine was then using oil in 85 percent of its homes.