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Roots of Gubernatorial Resistance

Paul Kando

If just converting from burning fuels to solar electricity will cut our energy needs by up to a third, then why are Maine’s governor and his coterie so much against solar power?

Maine Governor Paul LePage
photo credit: AP Photo / F.Bukaty

The cut in energy need is rooted solidly in physics: the stack losses associated with burning are eliminated. An example will illustrate: A house burns 800 gallons of oil for heating. At 139,000 BTU per gallon, 800 gallons of oil contains 111,200,000 BTU (or 32,592 kWh) of heat energy. The only way we can access this energy is by burning the fuel in a boiler. If this process is 75% efficient, we must burn 800 (instead of 600) gallons of oil to deliver the mere 83,400,000 buts (24,444 kWh) of heat the house actually needs. At the current $1.87 per gallon, that’s paying $1,496 for $1,122 worth of heat.

We could heat this house with (100% efficient) electric baseboards, paying, at 15.8¢/kWh, $3,862 for the required 24,444 kWh of heat. Using the electrical resistance of a wire to generate heat is obviously an expensive proposition. Or we could install a 400% efficient ductless heat pump, which will deliver the same amount of heat, drawing only 6,111 kWh of energy, at a cost of $966 at 15.8¢/kWh.

How is it possible to squeeze out 24,444 kWh of heat from 6,111 kWh of energy? It isn’t. Modern heat pumps don’t use electricity to generate heat at all. Instead they capture and utilize the (solar) heat energy found – at various low temperatures – in the surrounding air. Electric power is used only to turn the shaft of a compressor, which compresses the air to raise its temperature. The heat is transferred to a heat exchange fluid, which delivers it to where it is needed – indoors for winter heating, outdoors when excess heat is removed from the house in order to cool it.

Heat pumps are inexpensive to operate because (1) Turning a shaft takes a lot less electrical energy than generating heat. (2) Unlike a fuel, solar heat found in the environment is free. And (3) Solar panels generate free electricity to power the heat pump.

What about the cost of installation? — Well, regardless of the energy form, there is always an up-front investment. A heating system running on oil or gas, costs thousands of dollars to install. So do solar panels and heat pumps. However, after the initial investment, one must keep paying for the oil or gas while the solar energy is free. And the cut in energy use is real.

For this massive energy saving to be realized, we must have combustion-free electricity. This is one of the most powerful arguments in favor of developing the renewable power of solar, water and wind. But to a free market ideologue it is apparently an existential threat to the core belief in markets as problem-solvers. “Energy” used to be sold as just another commodity. Now here come solar and wind, supplying it for free and cutting demand to boot.

Kind of upsets the cart, doesn’t it?