Maine has a well-earned reputation for Yankee thrift and self-reliance – except when it comes to energy. According to a 2011 ranking by the U.S. Energy Information Administration , or EIA, Maine residents are the 10th highest energy-spenders in the nation, with an annual per capita outlay of $5,508.

More than two-thirds of those expenditures are for diesel oil, natural gas, propane and gasoline (a major household expense in a rural state with few public transit options).

Fossil fuel costs siphon roughly $4,000 dollars from each Mainer’s wallet every year. The former Office of Energy Independence and Security (under Gov. Baldacci) estimated that 80 cents of every dollar spent in Maine on fossil fuels leaves the state. It termed this outflow a “petro-dependence tax,” calculated in 2008 to be between $5 and $6.5 billion – roughly double Maine’s total tax revenue that year.

Exporting twice as much in energy dollars as we generate in revenues weakens Maine’s economy. Petro-dependence also makes us highly vulnerable to fuel shortages and price spikes. Last winter’s extreme weather made this painfully clear as extended cold increased fuel demand, and reduced supplies drove prices up.

In a state where two-thirds of households heat primarily with oil, where federal energy subsidies are minimal and where nearly everyone relies on fossil fuels for transportation, market fluctuations cause real hardship. When supplies run short, the implications are even more dire.

Maine’s high petro-dependence tax still does not account for the true cost of extracting, transporting and burning fossil fuels. Pump prices don’t reflect related ecological damage and climatic consequences; national security risks; public health effects of smog, ozone and other pollutants; or federal subsidies to oil and coal companies. A National Research Council study, “Hidden Costs of Energy,” calculated the fiscal impact of pollutants on health, recreation, forestry and agriculture at $120 billion in 2005.

How can Maine escape the fossil-fuel spending trap?

The EIA chart of energy production in Maine, including such possible sources as coal, natural gas, crude oil, nuclear electric power, biofuels and “other renewable energy,” is blank until that last one, where a lengthy bar shows more than 150 trillion Btus in renewable energy produced annually. This is largely due to electricity production from wind and biomass. That figure represents more than a third of the total energy consumed in the state.

Maine is not likely to generate any of the first four fuel sources (for which we can be thankful, given reports of the community devastation wrought by mountaintop coal mining, fracking and tar sands extraction). Our hopes for future energy generation clearly lie with renewable sources.

A 2010 report on energy self-reliant states suggests that Maine could generate 577 percent of its current electricity demand through a combination of renewable technologies and greater efficiency (the most cost-effective way to achieve increased energy self-reliance). Rather than sending energy dollars out of state, Maine could export power, create new jobs and generate needed revenue.

What might this mix of renewables look like? The Solutions Project envisions Maine in 2050 as heavily reliant on wind (35 percent onshore, 35 percent offshore); with solar photovoltaic adding almost 20 percent; and hydroelectric contributing another 7.5 percent. Electricity generation from these renewable sources could power technologies not reliant on fossil fuels – like electric vehicles.

An analysis just completed by high school students for the Camden Conference outlines how Maine could relinquish fossil fuels and be carbon-neutral by 2050. Leading off their list of 16 potential approaches is building efficiency, where Maine already has a target of weatherizing 100 percent of residences and 50 percent of businesses by 2030. Having the sixth-oldest housing stock in the nation, Maine stands to gain much from efficiency investments such as weatherization and air-source heat pumps.

The path toward an all-renewable energy future is not without potholes. For wind power production in Maine to expand, for example, the region will need to upgrade transmission lines within its power grid – many of which cannot handle the extra load from wind generation (particularly in remote settings). But these investments – unlike dollars sent to distant petroleum corporations – would bring far-reaching benefits to Maine and the planet (as recent scientific reports confirm evidence of increasingly dire climate impacts from greenhouse gas emissions).

Research done at Stanford University for The Solution Project shows all-renewable power would offer Maine:

• More than 25,000 jobs that could sustain workers through four decades of consistent employment; and

 Annual energy cost savings of $2,000 for each Maine resident, with another $2,200 in health and climate cost savings.

Maine’s Legislature demonstrated strong bipartisan support for several solar bills in this last session. But the governor – still smarting from the rejection of his proposed timber harvest on public lands – vetoed a bill that would have reinstated a popular solar energy rebate program. The governor claimed that the modest one-hundreth-of-a-cent-per-kilowatt-hour fee (costing less than 75 cents a year for typical households) represented a “new tax.”

Who would not opt for a fee measured in pennies annually if it meant we could save Maine from hemorrhaging $5 billion in fossil fuel payments every year?

Fossil fuel spending yields Maine few benefits and carries untabulated costs. Investing in energy conservation and renewable power provides returns of lasting value – greater self-reliance and security, a healthier environment, more steady employment and improved public health.