If you saw a threat, would you avoid it? If you saw an opportunity, would you take it?
We all know the answers to these questions, and so do 14 Maine leaders who will board an airplane later this week heading for Denmark. That’s because Denmark is a world leader in addressing climate change. It has reduced its fossil fuel use by more than one-third since 1971. These community and business leaders believe our own lives will be better if we know how Denmark achieved this feat.
Maine imports nearly all its energy. Most comes in the form of heating oil, natural gas, propane and gasoline. This costs Mainers roughly $5 billion every year. If Maine expands renewable energy, improves the energy efficiency of our buildings, improves public transit and focuses growth more in downtown areas, we can save money and reduce our carbon emissions.
The effects of climate change are all around us. Most examples look pretty grim. We’ve seen the closure of the shrimp fishery this year, lobsters moving north to cooler waters, the dramatic spread of ticks and other pests and the damage wrought by extreme weather to our roads, buildings and the lands. But the news — and the opportunities — are not all bad.
Much already is being done in Maine to address climate change and reduce the use of fossil fuels. Consider the 803-panel solar array at Mt. Abram Ski Area, which provides electricity to the ski area and nearby homes. Mt. Abram also has instituted a carpooling program, built an electric vehicle charging station and installed pellet boilers to heat its base lodges. With 120 employees, Mt. Abram believes its investment in renewable energy will support those jobs for the years to come.
And look at Falmouth, where public schools are heated with wood chip boilers, because of a steady supply of sustainably harvested wood chips from the Maine woods. That supports forest jobs while the school system saves on heating and cooling costs.
Meanwhile, towns such as Gouldsboro, Rockport and South Portland have proposed large-scale solar projects, and ecomaine, a community-supported waste-to-energy plant, offers single-sort recycling to its 25 member communities. These projects are a strong start.
They save fuel, create and sustain jobs and are good for the environment. But more can be done. Maine communities, schools and businesses are eager to find ways to reduce fossil fuel use. Three towns — Eastport, Freeport and Falmouth — have representatives participating in the trip. They will bring back useful ideas that can be shared and implemented by communities across Maine.
In fact, that’s just the point of the trip to Denmark. The group will hear presentations on community investment in energy efficiency, biomass, wind, waste-to-energy plants, recycling programs and science education. What models of ownership and financing have succeeded? How have they built community support? How have communities benefited? What would have happened had these steps not been taken? And, most important, how might these lessons be applied to our home state?
The trip also will focus on energy policy: which policies have worked; which haven’t and why; what have been the best roles for government, for the private sector and for citizen groups; and what incentives are in place.
The Maine delegation will visit Samso, an island with four small towns that is “net zero,” meaning free of fossil fuels. The group will meet with residents, town councilors and facility operators there. Also on the itinerary are visits to a manure-fired energy plant and waste-to-energy facilities, time spent learning about permitting, local and cooperative ownership and local power projects.
A diverse group is participating, including legislators, business executives, municipalities, environmental advocates and educators. It builds on student trips to Denmark sponsored by College of the Atlantic, the University of Southern Maine and the Island Institute. This is the first trip to Denmark for Maine professionals and leaders.
Group members will share their findings when they return through meetings, community engagement and public policy outreach. They will focus specifically on what can be replicated in Maine cities and towns.
Nancy Smith is executive director of GrowSmart Maine. Sue Inches is the trip leader. She is former deputy director of the State Planning Office, and she recently completed a three-year term as board chair of Coastal Enterprises Inc.