A “solar canopy” installed by Georgia-based Quest Renewables sits atop a parking garage in Portland. Credit: Courtesy of Quest Renewables

Portland will lead a new effort under its climate change goals to outfit city residents and businesses with discounted electric heat pumps, solar panels, electric vehicle chargers and other clean energy upgrades.

It’s a major municipal step toward cutting the carbon footprint of Maine’s buildings, also a priority in the state’s Climate Action Plan, which seeks to make the state carbon-neutral by 2045.

Portland put out a request for vendors to join the “Electrify Everything!” initiative last week, looking for companies to offer volume discounts on emissions-cutting technologies that could be rolled out early next year. The exact costs are yet to be determined, but city sustainability director Troy Moon said Portland will only cover marketing for the program, using existing funds.

Moon said buildings currently account for 60 percent of Portland’s emissions. He compared the new electrify initiative to Weatherize and Solarize efforts that are on the rise in New England towns, calling it “Solarize on steroids.”

“There’s a place for everybody in this program. People don’t need to do all of the products; they can do one or two,” he said. “If they want to totally decarbonize their home and go 100 percent renewable, we can help them with that too. The goal is to break down the barriers people face when they think about making these changes because there’s so many options.”

From comfort to life or death

All those options can be overwhelming to consumers, said Eric Fitz, an energy consultant in Cumberland who recently started an electrification service and advising firm called Amply and is considering bidding into Portland’s program as a vendor.

“Building electrification requires expertise from many trades…. If you’re trying to tackle them in kind of an ad-hoc fashion, then often you end up with a bad outcome,” he said. “You’ve got to take a systems approach to this to end up with the lowest-cost, highest-performance, best outcome for a homeowner or the household.”

Portland hopes to take what Moon called a “one-stop shop” approach with its new initiative. Fitz said this will help people get more out of upgrades they might not otherwise consider.

“It’s not a sexy problem. A lot of people view it as just a cost of living, cost of homeownership, or just a thing (where) you have to pay the bills on this machinery that’s in the basement,” he said. “It’s important to connect this electrification issue to something people can feel tangibly.”

That tangible goal, he said, is home comfort: Putting an end to fighting with family over the thermostat or avoiding parts of the house that are always too hot or cold. And fixing these problems through electrification could save Mainers hundreds a year, according to the advocacy group Rewiring America.

Moreover, Fitz said making a home more efficient and less reliant on fossil fuels makes it more resilient — able to endure and bounce back quickly — during power outages on a grid stressed by extreme weather, which is set to increase in Maine even if emissions decline.

An efficient heat pump can provide heating, cooling and dehumidifying effects, which Fitz said can keep deadly conditions at bay for a day or more during power outages in extreme weather.

Heat pumps are a centerpiece of both Portland and Maine’s climate change goals. Michael Stoddard, the executive director of the Efficiency Maine Trust, said Mainers installed more than 20,000 heat pumps last year, double the year before, showing the state is making progress.

A ‘little nudge’ to take action

Stoddard said programs like Portland’s new initiative, which will include marketing for Efficiency Maine’s existing rebate and incentive programs, will help more people in the state’s largest city prioritize upgrades they might otherwise put off, and at a lower cost.

“We know that it’s a good investment to make, and we know that the home will be more comfortable when it’s done. And we just need, sometimes, a little nudge to take action,” he said. “What Portland is doing for its citizens with this initiative is helping to give that little nudge and to make it easier to get in touch with a contractor and to take advantage of a volume discount.”

The Electrify program is one of the city’s largest steps so far under the One Climate Future plan it adopted with South Portland last year. The goal is to cut emissions in both cities by 80 percent over 2017 levels by 2050, in line with the state’s goal to do the same for 1990 levels. The plan also aims to replace 80 percent of fossil fuel heating in residences with electric systems by 2050.

Right now, Maine relies more on oil to heat its homes than any other state, and those homes are some of the oldest in the country, according to federal data. On the other hand, Moon said the New England grid that will power electrification efforts is increasingly decarbonized.

The region still gets about half its electricity from natural gas, but, Moon said, “if you think about it, half natural gas is still better than 100 percent oil in your furnace. It still has less carbon.”

The program will also offer community solar options for residents who rent their residence or can’t make major upgrades, allowing them to invest in an array somewhere else in exchange for tax benefits and contributions to lowering emissions overall.

Like Efficiency Maine, Portland’s program will prioritize cost-saving options for low-income residents, who spend 19 percent of their income on energy on average, according to a 2019 state report — as much as two or three times the statewide and national norm.

But Fitz, the consultant, said policymakers will need to keep devising ways to cut the up-front costs of electrification and weatherization if they want a realistic shot at limiting global warming and meeting their goals.

“There is access to capital to help with this, but those interest rates are still relatively high,” Fitz said. “I think there’s an opportunity to really streamline this process and really make it a no-brainer when these investments you can make have no upfront cost.”

Fitz said he supports the moves Maine and other states have made toward creating “green banks” that help people cut their carbon footprints more cheaply. And Moon said he hopes the climate-friendly federal budget and infrastructure package now being debated in Congress will provide more support for these changes in the near future.

Scientists say the world must aim to be carbon neutral in the next 30 years — meaning countries would absorb more emissions than they create by the time that today’s millennials are nearing retirement — in order to prevent the most catastrophic impacts of warming.

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