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Rethinking Energy in Maine

Paul Kando

Last week I briefly described a New York state energy policy, which encourages deeper market penetration of wind and solar energy, distributed power generation via micro grids, and greater use of advanced energy management tools to enhance electric power demand elasticity and efficiency. Maine would do well to adopt similar, enlightened policy priorities.

Solar Farm in Edgecomb, 2nd of many in Maine
photo credit: Revision Energy

In a 2000 interview, then Saudi oil minister Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani presciently said: Thirty years from now there will be a huge amount of oil — and no buyers. Oil will be left in the ground. The Stone Age came to an end, not because of a shortage of stones, and the oil age will come to an end not because we have a lack of oil. Indeed oil prices have fallen precipitously, natural gas is cheap. Yet our transition to cleaner energy won’t be sidetracked by either. Here are but a few reasons why:

In the U.S., abundant natural gas has made electric power generation inexpensive, yet electric bills are still going up because fuel isn’t the only component of the electric bill. We also pay to get the electricity from power plant to home. In recent years, transmission costs have soared. Annual investments in the grid increased fourfold since 1980, according to a Deutsche Bank report. That’s what drives bills higher, making rooftop solar attractive.

Solar is a technology, not a fuel. As the systemic efficiency of solar technology increases with time, prices fall. In the 1970s the cost of solar PV cells exceeded $70 per peak watt. That same peak watt today costs 30 cents. Since 1970 solar PV’s price declined 2,275 times as much as the price of natural gas, according to Stanford University researcher Tony Sabe. Oil-rich Dubai recently tripled its solar target for 2030, to 15 percent of the country’s total power capacity and its publicly owned utility’s new $330 million solar plant will sell some of the cheapest electricity in the world.

No wonder solar, now less than 1 percent of the electricity market, is forecast to become the world’s largest single source by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency. Demand is so strong that the biggest limit to installations may be the availability of panels, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF).

Global sales of plug-in electric cars rose by about a third last year, according to BNEF, and heap oil is unlikely to stop this trend either. Since 2010 there has been no relationship between gasoline prices and electric vehicle sales. The rapid development of adaptive cruise control technology will improve the prospects of autonomous electric vehicles — self-driving cars – powered by solar. This is an especially important technology to contemplate in an aging, mostly rural state like Maine, as I will show next week.

The web site seekingalpha.com recently warned investors that, by 2030, oil production-dependent economies may collapse; solar, electric vehicle and autonomous car companies will flourish; and producers of internal combustion engine cars will either fail or adapt quickly. Will Maine adapt – or cling to outdated ideas?