Eastport looking to address energy costs to boost economy, quality of life

Posted Dec. 06, 2012, at 1:26 p.m.
Eastport's downtown historic district includes dozens of late 19th century red brick commercial buildings, most of them fronting Water Street.
Tom Walsh | BDN
Eastport's downtown historic district includes dozens of late 19th century red brick commercial buildings, most of them fronting Water Street. Buy Photo

EASTPORT, Maine — A consultants’ study funded through an Environmental Protection Agency federal grant has mapped out a variety of strategies for enhancing economic development and quality of life for the 1,330 year-round residents of the Washington County community of Eastport.

So, what happens next?

“There are a lot of dots to be connected, but on Dec. 12 we hope the city council will form an energy committee as a first step in making recommendations about energy issues that impact everyone in Eastport, given the huge reliance here on heating oil,” said Jon Calame, who heads up the Thermal Efficiency Eastport project.

The Washington County project is a spinoff of Minerva Partners, a New York-based nonprofit working to make communities less dependent on expensive fossil fuel sources for heating homes and businesses.

In September, three Smart Growth America consultants met with city officials and other interested community leaders in a two-day workshop that facilitated an exchange of ideas for mapping the historic port community’s social and economic future.

Through an EPA grant, Eastport is among 15 cities, towns and organizations nationwide selected to work with the Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm, which advocates for comprehensive planning that can help communities such as Eastport maintain and sustain its small-town charm in economically viable and eco-friendly ways. The only other entity selected from Maine was the Northern Maine Development Commission, which is based in Caribou.

Eastport’s Calame will be writing a formal community response to the Smart Growth America report.

“It was clear from the workshop that energy use is a key issue in Eastport,” the 15-page report said. “Many homes and businesses in Eastport are dependent on oil use. Environmental considerations aside, oil use has become an affordability problem for many households and property owners. As such, energy has become an issue that is hampering community vitality and local economic development. Businesses and residents struggle to heat their businesses and homes in the winter.”

Like most of Down East Maine, 80 percent of homes and businesses in Eastport are heated with fuel oil, which is approaching record prices per gallon. Ironically, Eastport residents can look across Cobscook Bay to New Brunswick, Canada, where most homes are heated more cheaply with electricity.

Compared to Maine, which has some of the highest residential electricity rates in America, electricity is cheaper in Atlantic Canada, given generating sources that include both hydroelectric and nuclear facilities. Those generating sources were dismantled in Maine 12 years ago through public utility deregulation legislation signed into law by then-Gov. Angus King.

“This whole thing is a nightmare,” Calame said. “Things will move slowly, and we are articulating old concerns. But I just yesterday came from a medical check-up at a local medical clinic, where the staff was telling me that elderly clients were not showing up for appointments and were not buying the prescription drugs they need because they need that money to heat their homes.

“I’m not optimistic,” Calame said. “It’s a David and Goliath situation. I’m trained as an architect, and I’m embarrassed that the people in my field haven’t done more to make the least-affluent people stay warm.”

Calame is an advocate of biomass generation. He’s hopeful that a consortium of downtown Eastport businesses will see the cost savings inherent in a collaborative retrofit that would burn forest industry byproducts to produce steam to heat their storefronts.

“We don’t know who is going to pay for that,” he said. “We’ll have to do a feasibility study. It’s one of the good ideas that came out of the consultants’ report and one of the good ideas we’ll push forward.”

Eastport City Manager Jon Southern said he will be meeting with Calame to discuss the consultant study’s recommendations before Calame submits a formal response.

Southern, 39, said last week that he is leaving his job in April, when his current contract expires, saying he’s “burned out” after almost three years on the job.

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