New England has some of the highest electric rates in the country despite getting the largest share of its power from natural gas, which is selling for historically low prices.

That’s because New England does not have the infrastructure it needs to get enough gas into the region during the high demand months. Fuel costs here were sky-high last winter, even though there is plenty of cheap gas in Pennsylvania and western New York. High energy prices send billions of dollars out of Maine and put industry here at a disadvantage. It’s a complicated problem that doesn’t lend itself to an easy fix.

Maine is trying to better take advantage of the low gas prices and the efforts are good, but they shouldn’t be the state’s only response. We should also be working harder to diversify our energy mix with renewable sources, such as hydro, wind and solar, and reducing demand through efficiency investments. These strategies are not only good for the environment, but they reduce our reliance on a single energy source, making the state less vulnerable to price spikes.

BOLD PLAN DERAILED

Last week, energy planners announced some disappointing news. A promising joint effort by the New England governors to help finance a pipeline connection to gas fields in Pennsylvania and to bring hydro power from Canada has stalled. Massachusetts lawmakers, Gov. Deval Patrick and both of the state’s U.S. senators have backed away from the plan in response to environmental concerns.

Since Massachusetts is the closest New England state to the gas fields and is the region’s pipeline hub, it’s hard to see this plan working without the Bay State’s participation.

Gov. Paul LePage has written to Patrick, calling Massachusetts’ decision “a colossal mistake” for the region, but unless Patrick changes his mind, the cheap gas won’t get here.

Maine Public Utilities Commission Chairman Tom Welch told the Press Herald last week that there may be other ways to swing the deal. In the meantime, Maine should make full use of the resources available to us.

One way to reduce the impact of the high cost electricity is to use less of it. Investing in efficiency works out to be about half as expensive as generating electricity. That makes it the cheapest power on the market.

And although renewable power is usually discussed in the context of greenhouse gas reduction, a diverse energy portfolio makes Maine more resistant to price spikes. Money invested in home-based solar power would pay dividends by lowering demand for electricity from gas-fired plants, making the gas that reaches the state go further.

DIVERSITY MATTERS

And wind power, with no fuel costs, can provide a predictable alternative to the people managing the power grid. It won’t replace the need for gas, but it can reduce demand for it enough to level prices throughout the year.

The value of energy diversity should be well-known to Mainers. For years we have been the state most dependent on home heating oil, and our economy has suffered every time oil prices climbed. If people didn’t have the opportunity to heat with wood, the price shocks would be much worse.

Maine and New England should keep trying to get low-cost gas into the region, but that effort may never succeed. In the meantime, we should increase our investments in efficiency and renewable energy so that we can better control demand for electric power when gas prices spike.