Over the past decade, Maine has taken several leadership steps on climate change. We were the first state to adopt a law setting targets and establishing a state plan to reduce carbon emissions. Maine then helped develop and joined the first multistate program to set limits on carbon pollution from power plants, known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI.
Maine’s actions on climate — combined with our tremendous renewable energy resources — give us a competitive advantage as the rest of the nation begins to put limits on carbon pollution. They also are providing major benefits right now in the form of increased energy efficiency and reduced energy bills.
Having been a senior hospital administrator for 27 years, I know hospitals struggle to keep costs down. Hospitals are energy intensive. Consider all those square feet to heat and keep well lit, all the energy-intensive equipment and all the hot water needed to meet cleanliness and sterilization standards. Energy efficiency improvements can yield huge savings, as long as hospitals can make the necessary upfront investments.
That’s where RGGI comes in. Since 2008, the RGGI program has been generating revenue for energy efficiency assistance for Maine homes and businesses. A large portion of those funds have been used specifically to help Maine’s largest energy consumers, from hospitals to paper mills, reduce their energy costs. Assistance comes in the form of technical analysis, trusted information, and financial assistance to lower upfront costs and steer investments toward the most energy-efficient options available.
By the end of 2013, Efficiency Maine programs funded by RGGI had yielded more than $250 million in energy savings. It is essential that we continue this work. Hospital administrators need to make it a priority to take advantage of energy efficiency opportunities. We must continue to ensure RGGI funds are available to Efficiency Maine, but all of us also have a responsibility to put the time and money into reducing our own energy costs. The beauty of energy efficiency is that it is something we can do ourselves to lower energy costs — as opposed to gambling on oil and gas markets that will always be largely beyond Maine’s control.
RGGI has gained extra significance lately because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently released the Clean Power Plan, which establishes the first national limits on carbon pollution from power plants. Maine is supremely well positioned because, thanks to RGGI, we’re already on track to meet or exceed those standards. The Clean Power Plan is like getting your cake and eating it, too, because although it won’t require Maine to do much differently, it will require states and polluters up wind of us to reduce their levels of pollution.
That is good news for the health of Maine people, because it will lead to cleaner air and help curb the impacts of climate change. We all know Maine suffers from air pollution emitted by coal power plants to our west and south. National policies are necessary to tackle this problem — and previous national clean air standards have made a big difference.
A changing climate itself is also bad news for public health in Maine and requires national action. Warming temperatures accelerate smog formation and will lead to significant increases in asthma attacks and other respiratory illness. The EPA estimates the Clean Power Plan will lead to 1,700 fewer hospital admissions, 3,600 fewer premature deaths and 90,000 fewer asthma attacks by children. Shorter, more mild winters are already leading to rapid increases in insect-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease and West Nile virus. Since 2005, the incidence of Lyme in Maine has grown fivefold. How much worse things including asthma and Lyme get depends on how swiftly we can take action to cut pollution.
Therefore, the public health sector has a lot to gain from smart climate policies at the state, regional and national levels. National pollution limits will lead to cleaner air in Maine and mitigate some of the worst public health impacts of warming. And Maine’s smart, regional approach that combines cutting pollution with funding for energy efficiency means hospitals and others can get help lowering their energy costs.
I urge our state and federal leaders to support RGGI and the Clean Power Plan.
Warren Kessler was the longtime CEO of MaineGeneral Health, which includes the MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta and facilities throughout central Maine. He lives in Manchester, Maine.