There are many forces that cause upheavals in an economy – natural disasters, war, disease, the discovery or loss of raw materials – but none is as potent, or long-lasting, as new technologies that suddenly replace old systems with new ones.

Disruptive technologies have been profoundly changing Maine since the time of our great-grandparents, and along the way causing both unbearable hardship for some and great new opportunities for those who were nimble enough to adapt.

Maine’s ice industry collapsed in just five years after the emergence of refrigeration.

Our world-class wooden sailing ship industry rapidly declined from the rise of powered steel ships.

The seemingly irreplaceable horse and buggy infrastructure, including the breeders, “gas stations” and maintenance shops of their day, were reduced to novelties in a few decades by the automobile,

Cars then killed off passenger rail.

Tractors led to the collapse of large family farms.

Cellphones pushed Ma Bell to the side of the road.

The internet is steadily undercutting our paper mills.

All of these changes had one thing in common: The people who lived through them could hardly imagine that such a change could happen.

Perhaps the greatest disruptive force that Maine has endured over the last hundred years has been in the energy field. Three generations ago we were a largely energy-independent state, using wood, horses and candles produced here. Then oil and gas and electrification came along, improving lives but leaving us dependent upon energy shipped from around the world or across of miles of poles and wires. That change came at a steep price. We became an energy colony that exports over $5 billion – every year – to global gas, oil and electricity companies.

Technology drove that change and new technologies are about to drive another. This time it will give us the opportunity to become energy independent again, and open a new economic future for the state.

ENERGY TECHNOLOGIES CONVERGING

Three streams of technical innovation, long flowing on parallel courses, are now beginning to combine. None of them, by itself, has truly disruptive power, but together they represent a historically transformative force.

Solar power: Photovoltaic solar generation, of the kind you see on homes, businesses and landfills, is now 95 percent less expensive than when it was first developed, and 50 percent cheaper than it was a decade ago. Like any new technology, solar didn’t burst onto the scene fully formed or affordable. Neither did early cars, airplanes, telephones, televisions, computers or cellphones. They all went from laboratory novelties to risk-taking early adoption to mass embrace, while continually becoming better and cheaper.

Solar is now on the doorstep of mainstream adoption. Over the next decade it will not only become more affordable and powerful, it will also redefine itself with the help of solar shingles, solar windows and even solar paint and film.

Storage batteries: Solar’s next big expansion will be driven, in many ways, by another technology: storage batteries. We all know that solar sleeps when the sun isn’t shining, which forces solar owners to rely dxnon the electrical grid for backup. But what if another backup source becomes available that allows people to save the energy from sunny days and use it on other days and nights? What if we had battery packs with enough power to do that? They are coming.

Since the onset of the electric-start automobile, batteries have gradually become smaller, more powerful and less expensive. The development of laptop computers and smartphones pushed them forward in giant leaps. Now, batteries are in another rocket ride stage of development, driven by the advance of electric vehicles.

Every major car manufacturer in the world is retooling for electric cars. Some, like GM, Volvo, VW and Nissan, have announced their intention to go “all-electric vehicle.” More will follow. This year and next, automakers are unleashing a wave of new electric vehicles that are pushing recharging distances from 100 to as much as over 500 miles. Electric vehicles, and their hybrid-electric cousins, are expected to become 30 percent of all new vehicles sold within six years.

Few of these new electric vehicles will look like the enclosed scooter that your environmental friends pioneered awhile back. Instead, they’re aimed at the bull’s-eye of the U.S. auto market: SUVs and pickup trucks.

By the end of next year, 10 new electric SUVs will come onto the market. Ford and Rivian pickups are not far behind, including Ford’s top-selling F-150 pickup, the great-grandchild of its iconic F-100. All of that will be followed by a much bigger wave of new electric cars between 2020 and 2025.

The clearest indicator that electric vehicles are knocking at the door of the mainstream market can be found in the 2019 Hyundai Kona, its compact SUV. After tax credits, it will cost under $30,000. It has a charging range of 258 miles and better acceleration and a quieter ride than its gasoline cousin.

Super-efficient appliances and lightbulbs: Add to these two technologies the advances in efficiency in cars, boilers, electric motors and lighting. Check out the new LED lightbulbs at your nearest hardware store. They often cost less than Tom Edison’s incandescent bulbs that we all grew up with. But they last five times longer, require a tenth of the energy over their lifetime and produce up to 30 times more light.

THE ERA OF ENERGY INDEPENDENCE IS COMING

Disruptive technology isn’t a choice that we make in Augusta or Washington. It comes whether we like it or not, sweeping away whatever barriers we might try to erect. The only question for Maine is: How will we respond? Will we get ahead of this change, and even accelerate it, to capture the greatest benefit? Or will we try to hold on to the past, as we have before, while others run ahead of us?

The key question is: Can we make change our ally rather than our enemy? To do so will require of us both courage and imagination. Try to envision the buildings and communities of tomorrow, when these three disruptive technologies have further matured and combined.

Squint just a little and you’ll see new homes and businesses with solar roofs where asphalt and steel were before. You’ll see battery packs where the furnace used to be, and electric cars in the driveway or parking lot.

You’ll also see more and more people heating their homes and driving their cars with energy that they own and control. Note that billions of dollars are staying here in Maine to build new businesses or improve education and health care. Widen the scope and you’ll see a vibrant and bubbling Maine economy, in every corner of the state.

It turns out that energy independence holds the potential to become a powerful engine for sustainable prosperity. It may be exactly the kind of jolt our economy has needed since the mills and farms began to decline. And it will all come with one tremendous side benefit – the greatest contribution to climate change that our small state can make.

 


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