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We Need a Comprehensive Energy Plan

Paul Kando

Mainers spend about $6 billion every year on fossil fuels— an annual expenditure of $4,500 by every man, woman and child — all of which leaves the state’s economy. Half of it goes for transportation, 40% is used in buildings, and the remainder by industry and power generation.

We could turn this $6 billion annual liability into a $6 billion resource by using a fraction of it to improve the energy efficiency of our systems and finance a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Thereafter we could devote the remaining funds to creating jobs and improving the state’s economy and quality of life.

Sadly, Maine has no state energy goal or comprehensive energy plan. With a meager 713 solar jobs, Maine has the lowest solar employment in the Northeast—ranking 40th nationwide. Massachusetts has 11,530 solar jobs, Connecticut 2,168, Vermont 1,535, Rhode Island 1,064, and New Hampshire 1,051.

No state energy goal means no standard with which to evaluate the merits of energy and environment-related legislative proposals and programs. Their fate is at the mercy of the power-balance between opposing interests and lobbyist effectiveness—never mind their technical, environmental and long term economic merits. We can do, and certainly plan, better. Here are 10 necessary steps:

  1. To proceed rationally, establish a starting point. The US consumes twice the energy per capita to maintain a living standard akin to that of other developed nations. The average Maine house uses12 times as much energy for heating as a similar-sized passive house. Most of us know how much we spend on winter heating, but not how much of our heating energy goes to waste, let alone how it is wasted. So we must conduct energy audits on our houses and quantify our communities’ energy needs in detail.
  2. Meaningful change occurs from the bottom up. Regardless of the scale at which we plan, the results will inevitably depend on achievements at the lowest level — the success of individual households. State energy policies must therefore encourage beneficial change—i.e., energy improvements — at the household and citizen level. It is wisest to plan on a small scale and build a working model for any larger plan. Small scale efforts will add up to larger scale and statewide results.
  3. A state energy plan will be organized by sectors. Once we have addressed our houses and buildings, our communities will move onto transportation, local industry, and power generation as well. Our plan will incorporate a dynamic and flexible process, not yield a rigid, unchanging document.
  4. Set a realistic, achievable state goal — e.g., transition from fossil fuels to 100% renewable energy by 2050 — keeping in mind that it will be realized through local, smaller scale plans and successes.
  5. Assess the challenges involved. We need affordable energy storage and are stuck with an outdated power grid and utility business model. How do we overcome lack of individual initiative; hold harmless any “losers” from the energy transition (e.g., those who make their living handling fossil fuels); and include everyone, regardless of income? Ultimately we must, at all levels, strive to create a society and economic system that serve everyone’s real human needs—not their advertising-hyped wants.
  6. The political context presents its own challenges — money in politics; downright corruption; corporate domination of the public sphere; lack of leadership; ignorance and deliberate misinformation — to mention a few.
  7. We must account for alternative energy resources: “negawatts” (potential energy savings), solar, wind, and hydropower, renewable biofuels and geothermal heat. Relevant human resources include the body of accumulated human knowledge, science, critical thinking, logic, imagination, resolve, and magnanimity.
  8. The money we currently spend on fossil fuels can become a special resource used to finance our energy transition. In an energy audited house one would: (a) Establish 1/12th of the annual amount currently paid for energy as a monthly baseline (e.g. $300); (b) Implement such no-cost energy conservation tasks as setting the domestic hot water temperature to 120ºF and removing bug screens from windows in winter; (c) Reinvest the resulting calculated monthly savings—shown task by task in the energy audit report — in additional conservation measures, with savings repeating and accumulating month after month; and (d) Continue to do this, task after task, until the stated energy goal (e.g., zero fossil energy) is reached.
  9. Strategies may include increasing energy efficiency; electrification across the board; distributed electric power generation; microgrids; incentives to encourage individual and local action; community action programs to include those who cannot afford (or think they cannot afford) to participate; local dialogues to develop interim tasks; developing easy-to-use tools to track and reinvest savings; discount group purchases; and more.
  10. Be it statewide, local or a single house plan, it must be long term, open ended, dynamic and iterative. Beyond household-scale, participation must be open to everyone—we never know who might have the best insight, a brilliant idea. A good plan is an interactive process, not a finished, rigid, document. It‘s OK to try things and discard them if they fail to work, or improve on them until they do.

Let’s get to work. As Maine home and building owners, we are solely responsible for how we spend our 40% share of $6 billion per year, as well as for all associated climate and environmental impacts.