BUCKSPORT – It’s no secret that employers in Maine and across the nation have been forced to slash costs to survive the recession. Too often these cuts come at the expense of workers — in the form of layoffs, hiring freezes and salary reductions.

Meanwhile, another top cost is frequently overlooked, and that’s energy.

Energy efficiency initiatives can help improve business competitiveness and profits for years. One particularly ripe area for Maine, and one that could also reduce the state’s carbon footprint, is called energy recycling.

Dating back to Thomas Edison and the dawn of the electrical age, energy recycling is now helping economies around the world produce more goods with less fossil fuel and lower pollution, yet it is woefully underused here in the U.S.

When fossil fuels like gas and coal are burned to produce electricity, as much as two-thirds of their energy is lost in the form of waste heat. For many energy-intensive manufacturing facilities, this waste heat is simply released into the atmosphere.

Recycled energy techniques allow manufacturers to capture that waste and turn it into 100 percent clean power — thus lowering energy costs and raising productivity.

The value of energy efficiency and energy recycling in particular is well understood by Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe who, along with Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), has introduced legislation that will expand investment tax credits for energy recycling. It is supported by more than 125 business, labor, and environmental organizations.

As Sen. Snowe recognized when she released the bill, these credits will “enable American industry to reduce fuel dependency, cut costs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, add jobs and enhance global competitiveness.”

In particular, this measure would help manufacturers in Maine reap huge costs savings by recycling heat from energy-intensive processes.

Full deployment of energy recycling techniques represents a huge opportunity.

According to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, fully harnessing this source of clean power could provide 20 percent of U.S. generating capacity by 2030, create nearly one million jobs, and cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 800 million metric tons per year.

Maine already has about 1,100 megawatts of combined heat and power (or cogeneration) units at work recycling energy. For example, at Verso Paper’s mill in Bucksport, one combined cycle cogeneration unit is now operating at 65 percent efficiency as compared to a traditional power plant which operates at 33 percent efficiency.

Another cogeneration biomass power project, recently announced, will reduce CO2 by more than 90,000 tons per year while making the mill even more energy efficient and having the capability to supply 30,000 Maine homes with green energy.

Verso’s Androscoggin Mill in Jay is also working on projects designed to increase steam and energy efficiency.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. More examples of high efficiency industrial facilities can be found around the country.

In the Midwest, in the steel-making town of East Chicago, Ind., ArcelorMittal has installed four energy recycling projects that capture and harness the manufacturer’s waste energy to generate 220 megawatts of power — more clean electricity than all the solar panels connected to the U.S. electric grid.

Using energy recycling at this one steel plant saves nearly $100 million a year in energy costs.

Many more opportunities await — opportunities that would be unleashed with the appropriate financial incentives.

Despite its significant savings, energy recycling requires a great deal of capital investment. With a still sputtering economy, this is a tough sell for many business owners who lack access to that level of capital.

This is where Sen. Snowe’s legislation can help. It should be passed now, before Congress adjourns for the year.

The proposed investment tax credits will maximize the economic and environmental benefits of energy recycling, giving businesses the means to make their energy work twice. With that help, more Maine businesses can thrive, putting more Maine residents to work.