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Sarah Lozanova headshot

How to Wean A State Off Oil

By Sarah Lozanova

Some of the speakers at the E2Tech Expo 2016 didn't paint a pretty picture for the future of Maine. We have the most energy-intensive economy and are among the most oil-dependent states in the nation. In fact, two-thirds of Maine homes are heated with fuel oil. As a highly rural state in a cold climate, Mainers are disproportionately dependent on heating systems and the automobile. This heavy reliance on oil makes Maine vulnerable to supply shortages, price spikes and transportation issues.

Most of the fuels supplied to Maine arrive by rail or import terminals. Such modes of transportation are often slower or less reliable during the winter months when the supply is most needed, causing supply and price instabilities. For example, propane prices peaked in February 2014 as it often does at the end of the winter, leaving very high energy bills in its wake.

As heat-pump technology advances, it becomes far more promising for colder climates like Maine. Presenters at E2Tech discussed additional approaches, although it didn't seem as if a there was a clear path forward. James LaBrecque, technical advisor on energy to Gov. Paul LePage, suggested common-sense, energy-efficiency initiatives and electrifying home heating.

But he showed no support for wind or solar energy advancement and seemed more focused on short-term prices than externalized costs or national interest. In fact, LePage vetoed a solar bill earlier this year with bipartisan support. Efficiency Maine used to offer rebates for residential solar energy installations but the state law that authorized and funded those rebates was repealed. They are still able to give rebates for heat pumps.

Fresh ideas

David Markley, co-founder of Surge Hydro, is out to leverage existing dams to create a more sustainable power grid with fewer transmission losses. He says more than 90 percent of all U.S. dams do not produce electricity, representing a missed opportunity to generate clean power. Expanding sources of renewable energy would also help with rising demand that will likely be fueled by vehicle electrification and electric home heating.

Tony Wood, CEO of F.E. Wood Natural Energy, comes from a family with a long history in wood products and sees immense potential in wood pellets for home heating. Given the forest resources in Maine, a solution that includes efficient use of biomass is logical, Wood sees great opportunities for growth in the wood products industry because wood pellets could provide a long-term demand for low-grade fibers.

Wood products can also help homes become more efficient. Concerned by indoor air-quality issues, lack of fire protection and resulting waste, Nadir Yildirim, president of Revolution Research, developed a different home insulation solution: a foam-like product composed of wood fiber. I especially applaud this effort because some rigid foam insulations contain extremely potent greenhouse gases. Yildirim's R&D research company is now the recipient of federal grants.

“Our big value proposition is being eco-friendly with the same thermal properties as compared to others,” Yildirim said. The company's biggest challenge is the ability to compete on cost, as the apparent benefits are significant.

Speaking on wind energy, Christopher Allen, research engineer at UMaine Advanced Structures and Composites Center, is exploring ways to make offshore wind energy production competitive. He said that the average Maine family spends $10,000 on energy annually, with $4,000 on home heating, $1,000 on electricity, and $5,000 for gasoline. These sobering numbers highlight the jolt the economy would face if oil prices rise, especially given that Maine is such a rural state.

Allen highlighted how Maine residents and businesses spend $7.5 billion annually, or 15 percent of state GDP, on energy, with the majority of the dollars leaving the state. Allen spoke of how wind energy can create local jobs and (electric) heat pumps can heat homes without the use of oil.

Indeed the energy landscape of Maine is concerning, both economically and environmentally. Although many talented people are seeking solutions, the task of weaning Maine off oil is a major undertaking.

Sarah Lozanova headshot

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.

Read more stories by Sarah Lozanova