Tom Haines’ new book, “Walking to the Sun: A Journey through America’s Energy Landscapes,” is about his trips to places in America where forms of energy are either being extracted (oil, gas, coal) or harvested or utilized (water, wind, sun). He was exploring in a literal sense (on foot) and also a figurative one – how can humans move from fossil fuels to renewables? “The book is really looking at industrial-scale stuff,” he said. “And how can the system be changed?”

He worked on the book for nearly five years, but the timing of its publication earlier this month couldn’t have been better. It came out the same week as the brutally disheartening new report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which said that global warming is happening even faster than expected. Haines would rather not have been blessed with that topical timing. He’s as anxious as anybody else with their eyes open.

We called up Haines, a University of New Hampshire associate professor (and long-ago graduate school classmate of ours) to talk about why he came to Maine to research the book, what he found here and how he stays optimistic in the face of climate change.

THE HEAT IS ON: Haines started seriously planning the book around 2013. He and his family had just installed a new propane furnace. The guy installing it had told him how much he was going to love heating with gas and how warm it was going to be. Haines realized that he’d just committed to more fossil fuel consumption and that his awareness of what exactly that meant was seriously lacking. He began to hatch the idea for a series of reporting trips to increase his awareness of what was, as he puts it, at the other end of the fossil fuel pipe. Those trips included the oil fields of North Dakota and way Down East, Maine, where he explored the history of efforts to harness the extreme tides of the Bay of Fundy. (And created a very long, Slim Jim wrapper-heavy list of all the roadside trash he saw walking Route 1 from Calais to Eastport.)

TRAVELING MAN: Haines deliberately crafted the book for accessibility. “I am definitely not an energy specialist,” he said. “It is written for a general audience.” Before he started teaching journalism and writing at UNH, he’d been a travel writer for years, visiting roughly 45 countries while writing for the Boston Globe, so being on the road wasn’t anything new for him. How did Haines pick the six spots he visited? They were not exactly “highly scientific” choices, he said. He’d grown up in Pennsylvania, so he included a trip to the fracking regions of the Keystone State, walking across the border from New York state (where fracking has been banned since 2014). He picked North Dakota, specifically the booming Bakken oil fields, to kick off the book because it’s been tapped relatively recently. (It was oil from the Bakken oil fields that blew up in the Lac-Megantic train accident and explosion of 2013.) The first part of the book deals with extraction: oil, gas, coal. “The fossil fuel oil piece was sort of like a reckoning, where we’re ripping oil out of the ground.”

WIND AND WATER: When he moved onto the renewable energies explored in the second half of the book, he knew he wanted to cover projects involving wind, water and sun. He traveled to the desert near Las Vegas to see the nation’s biggest solar power plant. That walk was his shortest – just 10 miles – but most of it was uphill and in 100 degree heat. He also went to the plains of Texas, where he walked through a wind project in the Panhandle. But first, he’d traveled to Maine, taking a week in early November 2015 to walk from Calais to Eastport, where the Portland-based Ocean Renewable Power Company had been working on a pilot program to harness the legendary 18-foot tides. “I was like, let’s go look at what this little company has been tinkering with, without a ton of support.” (Ocean Renewable Power Company’s pilot program in Maine did get funding through grants and awards, including a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, according to its website.)


ON AND OFF GRID: He knew when he headed Down East that the company had completed the pilot program and retreated to Portland to regroup and develop plans to try similar turbine and tide technology in Alaska rivers. “People were like ‘Oh, you are going up there? That didn’t work. You really want to write about that?’ ” He did. The project was successfully connected to the grid but only produced enough power to fire up 25 houses. Yes, there had been problems (25 houses is a small number), but “I liked the idea of people kind of just trying to figure something out.” He was also interested in the long history of people with ambitions to harness the area’s tidal power, starting with Dexter P. Cooper, a hydroelectric engineer who had a plan in the early 20th century to dam up Passamaquoddy Bay to generate power using tides.

VOTE WITH YOUR FEET: The long journey around the country changed Haines. He hasn’t settled on one specific technology he’d push, but rather, all of them. “The point of the book is, we should be trying everything right now.” And he’s thinking about his own role in energy consumption more than ever. “It almost freaks me out now when I am pumping gas. I try to take fewer trips. I try to buy stuff that is more local. I try not to eat industrial beef. Is that going to solve the problem? No.” But it will help, he said. The key action though? It happens at the ballot box. That’s the prospect that makes him optimistic. “If we as a collective can choose to take action, and by that I mean voting and having leaders who take that action.”

WALK IT OFF: He came away from his walking tours realizing we need to understand how deeply enmeshed we are with a fossil-fueled world. He was never more aware of that than when he’d transition from sleeping in a tent out on a Texas prairie to jumping on a jet to return to New Hampshire. “We have built this incredible industrial system and now we are just trapped by it.” The oil workers he met in North Dakota? Nice people, “just trying to feed their families.” If those jobs are going to go away, they have be able to find work in clean, renewable energy fields. Haines believes it could be done. In the meantime, as you freak out about climate change? There’s solace to be found in just getting out in nature. “I recommend everybody take a long walk.”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MaryPols

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