Press Herald Staff Writer Tux Turkel has been superbly reporting about the challenges confronting Maine’s largest electric utility. It’s ironic, therefore, that his recent (Feb. 6) article on Maine’s energy challenges summarizes that “to get the carbon out, Mainers will need to plug in.”

This logical conclusion flows from Efficiency Maine’s recent staff report, “Beneficial Electrification: Barriers and Opportunities in Maine.” Turkel highlights the report’s focus on heat pumps and electric vehicles if Maine is to meet our legislated climate change policy goals.

Such focus involves rose-colored glasses. A more skeptical reading of the report is that the barriers to wholesale electrification in Maine – with undue emphasis on these heat pumps and electric vehicles – outweigh the opportunities.

Such wholesale electrification will likely more than double Maine’s peak demand for electricity, according to the report. Analysis by The Brattle Group, often cited in the report, anticipates that electrical generation in New England will have to grow by five times current capacity by 2050. This in a region whose residents appear increasingly reluctant to accept import of Canadian hydropower!

The report points out that these demand and capacity issues can to some extent be mitigated by revisions such as grid changes and peak load pricing. But only to some extent. Time-sensitive electric rates are not always effective and can be politically unpopular, the report concedes.

The report further suggests that funds to incentivize electrification could be raised through taxes on fossil fuels. At the time this report was presumably being written, our Maine Legislature was overwhelmingly rejecting such levies.

Before Maine jumps waist-deep into wholesale electrification, particularly heat pumps, which work fine in some buildings and situations, but not in others, we urge our policymakers to look around. What do we see in Maine? Trees. The most heavily forested state in the nation. A forest industry seeking new outlets for huge volumes of low-grade and “waste” wood, to replace declines in traditional uses. Plenty of capacity in our highly skilled logging sector. A rural Maine economy asking that we spend more heating dollars here at home.

While it’s not clear where additional electricity for heating will come from tomorrow, we know for sure that heating with wood (pellets, chips, etc.) from New England’s responsibly managed forests is feasible today and immediately reduces CO2 emissions by more than 50 percent compared to heating with fossil fuel. This is according to a 2016 study by John Gunn at the University of New Hampshire, generally a critic of wood-to-energy. We also know that as time passes, younger “replacement” trees that grow rapidly in the wake of a Maine timber harvest capture more carbon than the older trees being harvested. What other combustible fuel source used in Maine eventually replaces itself and recaptures carbon?

Wood pellet fuel is one option when it comes to energy from wood fiber. Co-generation woody biomass energy plants create both electricity and heat with an efficiency factor above 60 percent and represent a responsible and practical future for renewable energy on a commercial scale. New liquid fuels derived from wood fiber are also fast approaching the point where they will rapidly enter the daily energy market.

Moving to a future where electricity serves all energy needs may be laudable, but it’s going to take decades to get there. In the meantime, Maine will continue to rely on combustion fuels to make heat and move vehicles. That being the case, if we are going to burn fuels, why not burn a renewable, homegrown resource like wood rather than imported, non-renewable, carbon-intensive fossil fuels?

Maine climate policymakers would do well to temper their enthusiasm for all things electric and keep a pragmatic eye on solutions that are here today, with sweeping benefits for Maine’s economy and environment. Solutions like the intelligent and sustainable use of wood for energy, such as now takes place in Vermont’s schools, where about half of the students are warmed by wood heat. Solutions like those being eyed in California, where a new report being released by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has determined that California can achieve its goal of carbon neutrality by 2045 at modest cost using technology that is already demonstrated and mature, including carbon capture from waste biomass utilization.

Many, if not most, of Maine’s approximately 600,000 homes and other buildings cannot rely upon space heaters instead of central heating. Rather than just 100,000 heat pumps in Maine by a certain date, how about also 100,000 pellet heating boilers as well? For every 10 pellet boilers installed, a new Maine job is created and sustained and 100 percent of our energy dollars stay right here in our backyard. Let’s get to work!

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