Spencer Thibodeau, left, and Troy Moon look over a new electric vehicle charging station in front of Portland City Hall on Nov. 19. Thibodeau, a city councilor who chairs the panel’s Sustainability & Transportation Committee, and Moon, Portland’s sustainability coordinator, spoke at a press conference that touted the city’s drive to install new electric vehicle charging stations throughout Portland. In addition to City Hall, new chargers have been installed at Portland International Jetport and Payson Park, and the city plans to install more at the Back Cove parking area and on High Street. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Flooded buildings and eroded beaches. More illness from ticks, mosquitos and high heat. A reduced lobster harvest, with crustaceans moving northward to cooler water. Down East weather that resembles present-day Rhode Island.

Those are some of the ways scientists say Maine will change over the next 30 years unless substantial steps are taken now.

To help slow the change, they say Maine urgently needs to slash greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for the myriad impacts of a climate that’s changing so quickly, it poses a cascading threat to the health, prosperity and way of life of every resident and enterprise.

The primary way to do it is to encourage a quick pivot from gasoline and heating oil, Maine’s dominant, longstanding energy options for fueling cars and warming homes. In their place, electricity from renewable generation such as wind and solar, coupled with evolving storage technology, will power electric vehicles and efficient heat pumps.

These areas get special attention because transportation accounts for 54 percent of Maine’s climate-warming emissions, followed by 19 percent for home heating.

But it’s complicated. If electrifying the economy makes power too expensive, not enough people and businesses will make the transition.

That is a summary of the conclusions, solutions and challenges contained in Maine’s new Climate Action Plan.

Dubbed “Maine Won’t Wait, a Plan for Climate Action,” the document serves as a four-year blueprint aimed at blunting the impacts of climate change while building the foundations of a clean-energy economy. The final plan is scheduled to be released publicly by the Maine Climate Council to Gov. Janet Mills and the Legislature during an online presentation Tuesday.

It also will be available on the Maine Climate Council’s website.

Mills also is expected to speak about her administration’s climate actions to date and outline legislative priorities for next year based on the plan’s recommendations. In addition, the governor is expected to outline what her office calls “an aggressive new economic goal for Maine,” aimed at addressing both climate change and recovery from the pandemic.

 

MAINE’S CLIMATE CHOICE

The climate plan was assembled over the past 15 months by the Maine Climate Council. Both are creations of recent state laws aimed at cutting carbon dioxide emissions to 45 percent of 1990 levels by 2030, and 80 percent by 2050.

Despite restraints around the coronavirus pandemic, the council was able to amass information from 230 volunteer experts and interested stakeholders who formed six working groups and a scientific subcommittee. The general public also weighed in with comments and suggestions.

But now, the hardest work is just beginning.

Taking the suggested steps will cost untold billions of dollars in public and private investment over the period. And they will require personal, political and institutional commitments that may be hard, if not impossible, to sustain.

For starters, any hope for progress will be challenged by the twin specters of the global pandemic and a state-budget revenue gap forecast to be $1.4 billion. Add to that deep partisan divides about the role of government and the acceptance of basic science.

But doing nothing also could extract a steep cost, the climate plan emphasizes. Communities may bear $17.5 billion in flood damage by 2050, as well as job losses in coastal tourism. Treatments for tick-borne Lyme disease will climb, and $600 million in annual revenue from fisheries and aquaculture will be at risk from an ocean that’s warming and becoming more acidic.

Curbing emissions doesn’t have to sap economic activity, according to the plan. It cites research showing that Maine reduced gross carbon emissions by 32 percent from 2005 to 2017, while its gross domestic product grew by nearly 5 percent.

Moving toward a so-called clean energy economy can actually help jump-start a recovery following the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report issued early this month by the Mills administration. Building on a process already underway, thousands of new jobs can be created in businesses that insulate homes, upgrade heating and lighting systems and develop solar and wind projects, for example.

Some of that economic activity will spring from policies already enacted by the Democratic-controlled Legislature and championed by Mills. For instance, mandates to increase the share of renewable power utilities must buy already has triggered hundreds of millions of dollars in investment, chiefly for solar projects.

Aside from tax credits, most of that is private money. But comparable investments will be needed to spur actions that businesses won’t take on their own over the next five years, and that many Mainers simply can’t afford.

Examples include weatherizing 17,000 homes, subsidizing electric vehicle purchases and the construction of charging stations, and increasing incentives to coax homeowners with oil and propane heating to install 80,000 more high-efficiency heat pumps, as well as 35,000 whole-house heat pump systems.

AN EXPENSIVE PLAN

To pay for it all, the plan suggests a variety of funding options and concepts. The General Fund and revenue bonds are two examples. One-time money, such as the Volkswagen emissions settlement and millions of dollars from the New England Clean Energy Connect power line settlement for electric vehicle rebates, also could help. The plan even suggests looking at ways for tourists, who predominately arrive by car, to foot some of the bill.

“This is all ambitious,” said Hannah Pingree, who oversaw the climate council’s work as director of the Office of Policy Innovation and the Future. “We wouldn’t have set these goals if they weren’t achievable. But it will take funding and action.”

Pingree, a Democrat who previously served in legislative leadership, is well aware of the political obstacles facing the plan. Electric and natural gas customers already help pay for energy-savings programs run by Efficiency Maine through a small charge on their bills. Pingree knows there will be resistance to asking customers to pay more, and that increasing rates would be counterproductive.

“The whole plan requires stable and affordable electricity prices,” she said.

That understanding is shared by Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham. Berry chairs the legislative committee that handles energy and utility matters.

Because 84 percent of Maine’s total emissions come from transportation and buildings, Berry said, the solution is to power those sectors with clean electricity. But the power has to be more affordable than the gasoline and fuel oil it replaces. The big question is how to make that happen quickly.

Asked if he thinks the climate action plan can be carried out as intended, Berry replied, “Not without greater clarity on funding.”

Perhaps the best hope of receiving a meaningful slug of new money rests with the federal government and some form of pandemic relief package in 2021.

During the 2010 recession, the Obama administration earmarked billions of dollars in stimulus money to weatherize homes and boost clean-energy projects, although the number of jobs created fell short of expectations. In Maine, federal stimulus money helped pay for the Three Ring Binder rural broadband expansion and Central Maine Power’s smart meters. It gave homeowners rebates to weatherize homes and upgrade heating units.

President-elect Joe Biden ran on an ambitious climate-action agenda, although it remains unclear how the makeup of the new Congress will affect those ambitions. Still, Pingree noted that her mother, Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, and Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins both serve on their respective appropriations committees and will play key roles in any recovery package that emerges from Congress.

CLEANER HOMES AND CARS

The heating, cooling and lighting of buildings generate nearly one-third of Maine’s greenhouse gas emissions. But even with additional money, weatherizing 17,000 homes by 2025, and 35,000 by 2030, would be a major challenge. Even now, insulation contractors have trouble finding enough skilled laborers willing to suit up in coveralls and respirators to crawl into dank cellars and sweltering attics to do the careful work of air sealing.

The pace of work and level of investment would have to increase dramatically.

In 2018, Efficiency Maine issued rebates totaling nearly $1.5 million to 2,391 home projects, to which homeowners contributed $2.9 million. Each home can qualify for up to $3,500 in rebates for air sealing and insulation.

On the low-income side, a total of 750 homes were weatherized in 2018 using $9 million in federal funds, according to the Maine State Housing Authority. In 2019, $6.7 million was used to weatherize 415 homes through the Home Energy Assistance Program, MaineHousing said.

A transition to electric vehicles, a strategy the plan labels “Embrace the Future of Transportation in Maine,” will require an even heavier lift. The plan notes that Maine is a rural state, but it overlooks the fact that seven out of 10 vehicles Mainers drive are trucks and variously sized sport utility vehicles.

Despite that preference, the plan calls for putting 41,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2025, or 28 percent of new sales. The state’s current market share for such vehicles is roughly half a percent.

That’s not a realistic goal, according to Adam Lee, chairman of Lee Auto Malls. Lee, who’s also board president of Maine Conservation Voters and a strong advocate of electric vehicles, said he laments that no car dealers were on the council despite the outsize role of transportation in climate change mitigation.

“The goals and objectives seem aspirational,” Lee said. “I’m not sure how we can sell 41,000 electric vehicles when I had a hard time selling 30 Nissan Leafs a year.”

Lee said he expects interest in electric vehicles to grow soon, as manufacturers release more models that are less expensive and have better battery range. That’s exactly what General Motors is promising. It recently announced that its battery technology breakthroughs would boost range as high as 450 miles on a single charge. It pledged to have a small, electric SUV for sale under $30,000 by 2025.

Today, the range-cost equation offers limited affordable options. One example is a 2020 Nissan Leaf Plus, with a rated range of 226 miles. It has a sticker price of $28,700 after state and federal rebates, according to Efficiency Maine. But Lee said manufacturers will need to increase subsidies to move more electric vehicles. He noted that Nissan recently started offering a $199-a-month lease deal on the Leaf, although it’s for a basic model with a smaller battery and less range.

‘BANG FOR THE BUCK’

The issue of how to finance the rapid switch to electric vehicles isn’t well addressed in the climate plan.

Notably, the plan demurred on endorsing a compact of East Coast states including Maine called the Transportation Climate Initiative. That approach would require fuel distributors to bid into a shrinking limit, or cap, of greenhouse gas emissions. Money raised through the process would go to states to help fund electric vehicles, mass transit and other priorities.

Environmental advocates are for it. Acadia Center, a clean-energy advocacy group with an office in Maine, is pushing for Maine to support what it calls “the only policy proposal that would reduce emissions while providing a stable and sustainable revenue source.”

But the initiative would raise gasoline prices, which has attracted strong opposition in some states. It’s a nonstarter for the Maine Policy Institute, which lobbies on free-market and individual freedom issues.

Jacob Posik, the center’s communications director, said many people want to address climate change, but that support falls off when they hear about the specifics to pay for it.

“From a free-market standpoint, we’re opposed to subsidies and credits for anything,” he said.

Today, most residents can qualify for a $2,000 state rebate, on top of a $7,500 federal rebate for many plug-in cars. But Posik said it would be better to wait for manufacturers to make electric vehicles that are price-competitive with gasoline models, as General Motors is promising, rather than increasing government subsidies.

“We may have the right goals and ideas,” he said of the plan. “But how to put them into action, with the budget crunch we have now, will be a daunting task.”

In an era of tight resources, Maine should focus on actions that produce the greatest benefits for the lowest costs, according to Tony Buxton, a lawyer who has represented the Industrial Energy Consumer Group for many years. They include heat pumps, LED lighting and computerized motor controls in industry.

The manufacturing trade group supports the electrification of heating and transportation, but it estimates the electric grid will have to expand by three to five times to accommodate enough solar and wind to meet the demand.

“It is a grave error to not do the biggest-bang-for-the-buck stuff first,”Buxton said.

Correction: This story was updated at 10:30 a.m. Monday, Nov. 30, to correct the name of the Maine Policy Institute.

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