At a time when battles are raging over multiple energy projects in Maine, from oil pipelines to windfarms, policymakers must do more to find a balance between needed new clean energy sources and protecting the lands and forests we love. We don’t have to choose between protecting our wild lands and advancing renewable energy if we take the time to do it right and consider an array of options.
Maine is already a regional leader in renewable energy production thanks to its abundant resources. Hydropower has fueled local industry for several centuries. Wood-fired electricity generators are scattered throughout the state, including decades-old operations at paper plants. Several new factories produce wood heat pellets.
More than 1,200 megawatts of wind are either operating or proposed, and a first-of-its-kind floating turbine facility was recently approved offshore. Maine has set an ambitious target of 3,000 megawatts of new wind by 2020 as part of an effort to grow renewable energy further.
Yet renewable energy development is beginning to face roadblocks as Mainers and the entire New England region ponder the potential consequences of continued energy development for our rural landscape, tourism economy and way of life.
A report recently released by The Wilderness Society illustrates some of the potential landscape effects of reaching our stated renewable energy goals. Our maps and acreage calculations demonstrate that nearly all new energy sources have a downside. Keeping Maine’s most iconic places intact requires guiding development away from the most sensitive locations and getting serious about reducing energy use.
Through public dialogue based on solid information, policymakers should recognize that some places should simply be off-limits to development. That means working together to guide future development to appropriate places and offsetting unavoidable impacts by protecting priority landscapes. We need to have candid discussions about how much new energy generation is needed, of what type, where it can best be located and how to limit overall environmental effects.
New development must also be balanced with energy conservation. Maine has one of the lowest per capita rates of spending for efficiency programs of any state in the country, and there is a huge gap between the state’s efficiency goals and the resources necessary to reach those goals. The state also remains heavily dependent on fuel oil and propane for heat, weatherization activity falls drastically short of the need and building energy codes apply only in the largest communities.
Like many predominantly rural states, Maine also uses tremendous amounts of energy for transport. Nearly half of the state’s energy-related greenhouse gas emissions come from this sector. Increased funding for Maine’s Property-Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) and PowerSaver programs, or trade-in incentives such as the expired federal “cash for clunkers” program, could reduce energy use, while giving low-income Mainers a break from energy inflation by helping them finance home renovations or a new, more efficient car.
Reducing energy demand takes good-faith efforts by thousands of individuals, organizations and businesses. Sometimes that requires upfront costs to achieve long-term savings, but, most importantly, it requires changing long-term habits.
Unlike many issues before the state and the entire country today, leaders from both sides of the aisle, and from coast to forest, are coming together to have educated conversations about our energy future. We need to continue the dialogue and build science, economics and a bit of common sense into our energy plans.
We can’t ignore the effects, nor can we afford to do nothing. We need a path to cleaner energy sources and stronger efficiency programs to have a truly balanced approach. An honest look at energy development effects could be just what we need to inspire such efforts, as we recognize that saving energy saves the landscape we value.
Ann Ingerson is the northern New England resource economist for the Wilderness Society.