Portland teens propose energy and sustainability plans, hope to get lawmakers’ attention

Sophia McGovern, a junior at Casco Bay High School in Portland, makes her case for increased government incentives for energy-efficient home upgrades before a panel of judges Thursday morning at the Portland Public Library.
Sophia McGovern, a junior at Casco Bay High School in Portland, makes her case for increased government incentives for energy-efficient home upgrades before a panel of judges Thursday morning at the Portland Public Library. Buy Photo
Posted Feb. 09, 2012, at 1:56 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 09, 2012, at 5:42 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Casco Bay High School students on Thursday pitched plans for nuclear energy, wind power, pharmaceutical disposals and green construction with hopes that at least one teen ultimately might get his or her strategy passed into law.

Thursday represented the first of two days of presentations before four teams of judges from organizations such as the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, Efficiency Maine, the Maine Audubon Society and the Sierra Club.

The Casco Bay High School teenagers, all juniors, picked topics under the project theme “In the Black: How do we resolve our dependence on fossil fuels?” and began researching in October, student Breanna Fitzsimmons said.

Each student’s presentation includes an action item, which could be included in legislation, and at the end of the two days, one will be picked by the judges to sell his or her plan to lawmakers in Augusta.

Sarah Braun, whose daughter is one of the students taking part in the program, said through studying and making a case for more tax breaks and financial incentives for environmentally friendly home upgrades, her daughter gained “a larger awareness that she has a personal impact.”

“They’re really training students to be empowered and that they can make changes in their communities,” Braun told the Bangor Daily News on Thursday morning. “When I look at these kids, I think the future will be OK.”

Class research into energy sustainability will culminate in April with a Habitat for Humanity trip to West Virginia — to the heart of a coal mining community — where they’ll help build a home for a lower-income family and, according to a Portland Public Schools announcement, “document the untold stories of local people impacted by economic adversity and the exploitation of their natural resources.”

While the student who impresses the judges the most will get to make his or her case for change in the state capital, some are shooting directly for Washington, D.C.

Fitzsimmons said she’s pushing for uniform federal guidelines for landfills, which now are regulated state by state. Classmate Ceyannne Ferenchak is urging tighter federal land use regulations to protect more natural land from development.

Ben Smith is calling for the U.S. Department of Energy to place an emphasis on the use of thorium in nuclear reactors instead of uranium. Thorium reactors, said Smith, are less radioactive and less expensive than their uranium-based counterparts, and while he acknowledges the capital costs associated with building new power plants, he said thorium, in the short term, can be cycled into atomic plants already on the grid.

Smith said uranium simply was chosen as the government standard for nuclear plants in the 1950s because of the material’s potential to be used in warheads, a potential thorium doesn’t share.

“This was very much a college-level project,” Smith said Thursday. “I did a lot of research and created a massive white paper study. I really think this gives me a competitive advantage going into college.”

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