During the last years of my grandfather’s life, gas prices became a recurring topic. A consummate Mainer, my grandfather catalogued prices at stations he passed and compared notes with friends to ensure the best deal.
For my grandfather, this exercise was a vestige of growing up on a farm in the early 20th century. While frugality was a necessity in his youth, by retirement he no longer needed to be a tightwad. But like many Mainers, his thriftiness became ingrained in his identity.
Though necessity may lead us to focus on fuel prices, we must instead account for cost, rather than price, in our long-term planning. If oil hits $6 per gallon, it will affect those living in leaky homes much more than those with efficient houses. By focusing policy solely on fuel prices, we turn ourselves into victims instead of active participants in our futures.
This is the grand benefit of efficiency. It gives us more control over cost by protecting us from price fluctuations. My grandfather, for instance, could have traded in his car for one with twice the fuel efficiency and, therefore, withstood a doubling of fuel prices without feeling an increase in his actual fuel costs.
Such an idea of conservation is not new to Mainers. We recycled before the term “recycling” existed. We have slept in cold bedrooms, piled bags of leaves against our foundations for insulation and made an art of getting by with less. This is part of who we are.
Gov. Paul LePage’s energy policy contradicts this ethic.
His administration has taken a singular focus on reducing electricity rates and fuel prices, while simultaneously gutting the state’s efficiency and renewable energy efforts. He has actively worked to reduce the effectiveness of Efficiency Maine. As a result, Maine fell to 23rd in the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy ’ s 2012 state energy efficiency scorecard. The study concluded that Efficiency Maine will likely be unable to meet the goals of its current triennial plan partially because of the administration’s choice to fund the agency $30 million below requirements.
The results of our efficiency investments transcend political affiliation. In fiscal year 2011, $44.6 million of investment by Efficiency Maine spurred $73.6 million in additional private investment and reduced lifetime energy costs by nearly $450 million. More importantly, this investment supported an estimated 2,500 jobs.
LePage also headed a successful effort to remove stable funding for the state’s Solar Rebate Program, which cost ratepayers less than $1 per residence per year and helped support hundreds of jobs across the state. He recently embraced the Maine Heritage Policy Center’s partisan attack on Maine’s Renewable Portfolio Standard. The conclusions of this report — that renewable energy results in drastically increased energy costs and job losses — contradict independent studies by the Brookings Institute and London Economics International.
Policy must be based in reality. The reality is that the renewable energy and energy efficiency industry create a broad range of local, well-paying jobs that won’t be outsourced. These are jobs that can keep our talented science, technology and math students employed here at home. These are jobs that increase our national and local economic security. Job growth in the solar industry has been one of the few bright spots in our economy. In the last year, solar jobs in the U.S. increased by 13 percent, while the national job growth rate was roughly 2 percent.
Some have raised the concern that subsidies for renewable energy are economically irresponsible. Such an argument would have merit if, first of all, fossil fuels weren’t receiving larger subsidies, and, second of all, we weren’t seeing such critical dividends from our investments in solar technology. The Department of Energy has estimated that solar electricity will cost less than electricity produced from coal-fired plants by 2020.
Local investment in Maine’s solar industry has allowed new financing models to emerge that will increase the accessibility of renewable energy to businesses, institutions and residential customers. We are beginning to see systems installed with no money down, allowing Mainers to stabilize their energy costs without the impediment of a large initial investment. In addition, a pilot project is being run to use efficiency and solar energy to avoid transmission upgrades on the Boothbay peninsula.
These solutions provide opportunity for supporting and expanding local businesses. Instead of trying to attract businesses from away, these projects support Mainers working to build solutions specific to our state. They also support local colleges and universities that have made significant investments in programs focused on training workers for these industries.
For the state to turn its back on these opportunities because of partisanship does Mainers a disservice. We need our leaders to support ideas that have proven their worth and honor our values. We need to support energy efficiency and renewables.
Vaughan Woodruff owns Insource Renewables in Pittsfield. He is a member of the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners’ solar heating technical committee, author of technical guides for the national solar industry and a contractor with the Interstate Renewable Energy Council.