SACO – The Sierra Club issued a questionnaire to Maine’s gubernatorial candidates asking: Do you think there should be oil and gas drilling off the coast of Maine?

Answering “yes” would be political suicide. But given Maine’s heavy dependence on heating oil, a “no” answer really means “we’d like the oil, please, and we’ll let the folks in the Niger Delta and the Gulf deal with the spills.”

Maine’s Office of Energy Security estimates that Maine burned about 400 million gallons of heating oil in 2007. In the heating oil dependency derby, Maine leads the nation at about 80 percent. We are thus deeply implicated in the Gulf and the Niger Delta catastrophes.

Especially after the oil price shock of 2008, when heating oil exceeded $4 per gallon, you would think that Maine’s government would have developed a plan to get us off of heating oil, but you would be wrong.

SMALL REDUCTIONS NOT ENOUGH

The Maine Legislature has established a goal — a goal, mind you — of reducing heating oil use by 20 percent in the next decade. Would you sleep better knowing that Maine’s exposure to heating oil price shocks had been reduced to 320 million gallons of oil a year?

Meanwhile, the state’s objectives for the electricity sector are contradictory. The Legislature has established a goal of developing 3,000 megawatts (equal to the capacity of three Maine Yankee nuclear plants) of land-based wind generation in Maine by 2020, and a further 5,000 megawatts of offshore wind generation, all of this to be squeezed onto Maine’s 2,600-megawtt power grid.

But wait — the Legislature has also called for a 30 percent reduction in electricity use during the same decade.

I say let’s reorient Maine’s energy policies by organizing around a very simple objective: heating with Maine-based, zero-carbon wind power using controlled electric thermal storage heating technology.

Vinalhaven Island provides an object lesson in how this could work.

In December of last year, a new wind farm began producing power on the island. In March, Steffes Corp. and Thermal Energy Storage of Maine provided six electric thermal storage heating units for deployment on Vinalhaven, and VCharge, a Rhode Island-based smart grid company, installed remote charging controls on the heaters.

THE TECHNOLOGY IS AT HAND

An electric thermal storage (ETS) heater converts electricity, normally delivered during off-peak periods, into heat and then stores the heat in dense ceramic bricks within a heavily insulated case. The stored heat can then be withdrawn around the clock to warm your house or heat your water.

The technology is mature with well over 100,000 units in operation throughout the country.

On Vinalhaven, the VCharge controls automatically cycle the charging of the heaters on and off in sync with the output level of the island’s wind farm and other factors, such as the price of power on the mainland, storing the wind energy for use as needed for heating.

Every 28 kilowatt hours of carbon-free wind power stored in the ETS heaters displaces about a gallon of carbon-rich oil or propane — the common heating fuels on the island — and also saves islanders about 40 percent on heating costs.

Recently, the Conservation Law Foundation issued a statement noting that controlled ETS heaters can both displace oil heat in favor of wind power, and help to manage the integration of wind into the grid.

For the upcoming heating season, Thermal Energy Storage of Maine plans to begin selling ETS heaters and renewable off-peak heating power to Maine residents and businesses. Heating power is expected to be available on a three-year, fixed-price basis at the BTU equivalent of about $2.25 per-gallon oil.

MAKE POTENTIAL A REALITY

Mainers installing ETS heaters can thus lock in a bargain on heating costs while helping to reduce Maine’s horrific dependence on oil.

As wind power becomes more plentiful on the Maine grid, an all-wind-power option will be available for home heating throughout the state (not just on Vinalhaven).

Indeed, my company is currently in discussions with a wind power developer with the objective of directly displacing oil heat with stored wind power in various locations in rural Maine.

If we’re going to answer “no” to the question of whether we should allow drilling off our coast, while at the same time deploring the disaster in the Gulf, then we have a moral duty to reduce and eventually eliminate our heating oil dependency.

The availability of ETS heating technology and Maine’s abundant wind power potential offer us a carbon-free path out of this pickle.