CONTRIBUTORS

Discontinuing Maine’s renewable energy standards is a mistake

Posted Oct. 07, 2012, at 10:02 a.m.

The conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center and the Beacon Hill Institute for Public Policy Research recently released a report detailing the economic reasons to alter or discontinue Maine’s renewable portfolio standards, or RPS, begun under Gov. John Baldacci. Gov. Paul LePage concurred.

As the president of the Biomass Power Association — the nationwide group representing the biomass industry — and a lifelong Mainer, I respectfully disagree with the report’s bleak assessment of renewable energy contributions to our state and am disappointed that LePage wants to change the state’s energy laws.

To the contrary, biomass and other renewable sources provide invaluable benefits to the state in the form of reliable jobs, energy diversity and security, and reduced air emissions.

We are proud of Maine’s record in supporting renewable energy — a record that dates back to the original construction of our paper mills and hydroelectric facilities. Not only are we producing clean energy for our state; we are helping other New England states meet their own renewable standards by exporting energy produced here to neighboring states via the electricity grid.

We believe that Maine’s pioneering approach to energy has benefited Mainers and other New Englanders tremendously and should not be derailed.

Let’s start by looking at jobs. A recent study by the Maine Renewable Energy Association found that RPS policies in Maine and throughout New England would translate to roughly 11,700 new jobs in Maine and a $1 billion boost to our state’s economy. Biomass alone represents more than 1,000 good-paying jobs in Maine today. We shouldn’t be leading the way in ending RPS policies when they are supporting jobs here at home.

Residues from trees are an especially valuable resource here in Maine. Forests cover about 90 percent of our state, making Maine the most heavily forested state in the country. The biomass and forestry industries have a sort of symbiotic relationship; biomass purchases the materials left over from harvesting wood to keep forests healthy and to make paper and other products. Eliminating the RPS would likely have negative consequences for both industries.

The forest products industry is already undergoing a restructuring phase as it experiences significant demand changes as Americans consume less and less paper. RPS changes would likely be felt by many associated with forestry.

In Maine, we have spent the last decade investing in renewable energy, allocating reasonable yet significant funds to channel our natural resources into viable energy sources. This has required infrastructure development, evaluation, research, educational activities and other funding measures. Mainers overwhelmingly support renewable energy. Maine Citizens for Clean Energy found in a poll last year that about 75 percent of Maine residents supported a ballot initiative that would require 20 percent of electricity from utilities to come from renewable sources.

The inevitable result of removing the RPS will be an increase of the use of fossil fuels for electricity in our state, primarily natural gas. Increasing reliance on any form of energy is a risky long-term strategy because it’s hard to predict the factors that could affect prices and availability decades from now.

Natural gas is a “gift” — it’s plentiful, cost-effective (for now) and hopefully can be obtained in an environmentally responsible manner. But natural gas doesn’t help the many rural towns in Maine that are hundreds of miles from a pipeline. For those communities, natural gas is a “pipe-dream.” These areas must be encouraged to develop energy resources that are local, available and enriching to their own local economy.

Clearly, I am writing from the perspective of the biomass industry, since it’s the energy industry I know best. I don’t have as much insight into other forms of energy, but I firmly believe that our state should support a diverse portfolio that makes sense for the ratepayer and creates economic benefits for our citizens, particularly those who make a living in rural areas — in other words, an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy.

The current RPS has been successful in diversifying Maine’s energy sources using our own natural resources and has helped renewable energy become an important export for our state. It would be a shame to change course now.

Bob Cleaves is president and CEO of the Biomass Power Association.

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