AUGUSTA — Two vending machines stand in a lobby, side by side. You insert a dollar in each machine. The first gives you a dollar back, and the second gives you $8 back.

Which would you choose?

Amazingly, when that question was posed to students in a University of Maine at Augusta environmental studies class, they opted for the system with the low rate of return. Why? Their professor’s response could be summed up as: “We don’t care about money – we only care about solar panels.”

The class understood that the first machine stood for solar panels, and the second for a less expensive way to reduce carbon. Students also understood that solar panels weren’t effective at reducing carbon dioxide emissions and oil consumption in Maine. Yet they chose the ineffective, expensive option. This is representative of the dilemma in any substantive discussion about real energy issues.

When comparing which technology is more effective at reducing oil consumption, and thus reducing carbon emissions, heat pumps are 8.3 times more cost-effective than subsidized solar panels, according to my calculations.

In the vending machine scenario, the dollar amounts represented carbon credits – Gov. LePage wants to put every dollar in the slot that produces the most carbon credits. Special interests just want laws forcing the public to pay for their solar collectors under the guise of their environmental stewardship.

Reducing oil consumption substantially reduces carbon emissions. Maine uses 100 times more oil for heat and transportation than it does electricity. Maine is the sixth cleanest electricity producer in America, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and electricity generation accounts for only 9 percent of Maine’s total carbon emissions.

So why is the LePage administration so set on heating and transportation technologies that reduce oil? Because oil is where the carbon is, not electricity! So, who is the environmentalist?

This is the emotionally charged debate of wants versus needs that the LePage administration has to face every year.

LePage questions solar for simple and fundamental reasons. Solar, in addition to its lack of cost-effectiveness, is an unreliable energy source for Maine. It only produces electricity 15 percent of the year because it’s dark every night, with little daylight in the winter months. It is cloudy, snowy and rainy many days, and panels are often covered in snow. This is a Mother Nature problem that more subsidies or legislation cannot fix.

Despite a 40-year marketing effort undertaken by the solar industry, with its annual barrage of new solar legislation requesting more money, the only numbers adding up are taxpayer- and ratepayer-funded subsidies, subsidies that benefit only solar panel owners, and a small group of marginally successful and heavily subsidized producers and installers who continue to pray for more sunlight and subsidies.

One of the LePage administration’s proposed alternatives to subsidized solar in reducing cost, pollution and oil is lifting the Quebec hydropower restriction, a restriction supported by the solar, wind and fossil fuel industries. Hydropower produces no carbon, nor any of the other byproducts of burning heating oil. For every clean watt of hydropower feeding an electric heat pump, the heat pump produces three units of “ultra clean” carbon-free heat.

Buy one, get two free – you can’t beat that!

With Canadian hydropower at 6 cents a kilowatt-hour feeding heat pumps, it costs $6 for every million British thermal units used to heat our homes. Yes, the $6 leaves Maine’s economy, but with oil at $2 per gallon, $17 per million Btu leaves Maine’s economy. By replacing half our oil heat with heat pumps fueled by clean hydropower, $200 million will stay in Maine’s economy each year.

At a meeting in Farmington about a month ago, sponsored by the pro-solar Natural Resources Council of Maine, attendees were asked if they would support a policy that was product neutral, and based on carbon savings per subsidized dollar. The response, led by a University of Maine at Farmington professor, was essentially a resounding “No. We want solar.” Their emotional response clearly reflected their true ideology that practical solutions to save the planet are not going to stand in the way of unjustified solar subsidies.

Which poses a bigger threat to our environment, an environmental studies degree based on ideology, or certain legislators who continue struggling between the world of ideology and practical solutions?

As we move forward in our shared vision of clean, efficient and affordable energy for Maine’s citizens, who will we trust along the way?