Recently, there has been a lot of critical commentary regarding the viability and potential of renewable energy resources in Maine. This is understandable, since Maine is a national leader in promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy as integral components of an integrated energy, economic development and environmental public policy framework.
While renewable energy resources include biomass, hydro, tidal, solar, geothermal, wind and, in some instances, recycled waste heat, it is utility-scale wind power that seems to attract the most chatter and the most controversy. Ironically, according to most polls, wind power is generally supported by 85 to 90 percent of Mainers.
Maine’s Comprehensive Energy Plan wisely supports reducing our state’s dependence on fossil fuels, and not only by promoting cleaner and, increasingly, more competitive renewable resources, such as wind, hydro, solar, biofuels and geothermal. It also encourages energy conservation, energy efficiency, the recycling of wasted heat and the upgrading of our aging electricity, natural gas and petroleum transportation infrastructures.
While some of these actions are taking place, we need to clearly focus on implementing a more sustainable, balanced and cost-conscious energy policy in the state and we need to immediately act to reduce the state’s and region’s continuing dependence on foreign fossil fuels.
We often hear the old saw: Renewable energy products would not be competitive in the marketplace if they were not subsidized. This argument is disingenuous, destructive and distorts historical truths; billions of dollars in tax breaks, grants, protective trade tariffs and direct budget allocations to support the establishment and growth of the coal, oil and natural gas industries have been provided since the 18th century. Congress enacted a protective tariff for the coal industry in 1789; it passed legislation to protect and expand the railroads, the timber industry and coal industries throughout the 19th and 20th centuries; Congress continues to subsidize many areas — transportation, nuclear, fossil fuel, education, sugar, small businesses, healthcare, agriculture and fishing industries — to this day.
The Energy Information Administration reports that the coal, oil and gas industries often receive over 45 percent of federal subsidies per unit of electricity produced compared to as little as 15 percent for renewables. In 2009, the Environmental Law Institute estimated that the fossil fuel industry in the U.S. received $72 billion in subsidies from 2002-2008, while renewables only received $28 billion. The International Energy Agency noted in 2010 that the worldwide fossil fuel industry received more than $409 billion in subsidies, while the renewable fuel industry received approximately $66 billion.
There is a place for the fossil fuel industry in our energy mix, but if we are to subsidize the energy industry, we need to invest our tax dollars in a balanced and strategic manner. We need to invest in technologies that will create, in the long-term, a cleaner, more competitive and sustainable energy culture in our state, region and nation.
Recently, ISO New England conducted a study to analyze the impact of increasing wind generation to 20 percent of the ISO’s electricity market. The ISO estimated that New Englanders could save from $650 million to $1.4 billion in electricity costs per year if wind power were installed.
Recently, domestically produced shale gas has revolutionized the energy markets in the U.S.; this is an opportunity that should not be squandered. State government, in consultation with the private sector, should implement the provisions of the state Comprehensive Energy Plan and form public/private partnerships to follow through with the expansions of the natural-gas pipelines to the midcoast in the east; to the paper companies in the west; and to the farms and businesses in Aroostook County, in the north.
In the interim, the state should be encouraging the development of strategically placed tri-generation energy plants fueled by trucked-in compressed natural gas and liquefied natural gas to provide immediate energy cost relief to Maine’s businesses and residents. Recently, the LePage administration issued Requests for Proposals to advance several of these natural gas pipeline expansions.
Maine residents should take pride in the leadership the state has shown in creating a an energy plan and promoting a more sustainable energy culture. The governor and the Legislature should continue to lead by example and reduce state government’s energy costs by implementing the plan. Along with creating jobs, these actions will reduce our dependence on foreign oil while fostering the sustainable economic, energy and environmental cultures Maine people desire and deserve.
John Kerry is the former director of the Maine Office of Energy Independence.