Like the cold Maine winter, we often see heating bills as a force of nature. Whatever they are, we have to pay them, and once you’ve sealed the windows and set the thermostat down as far as possible, there’s not much else you can do.

But we are not powerless against the kind of high heating bills we are almost sure to see this winter – the kind that take too much money out of everyone’s pockets, and leave many Mainers rationing food, health care and other necessities through the cold months.

For short-term relief, the options aren’t many, but they are effective.

Long term, the switch to clean, renewable energy will not only reduce carbon emissions and abate the climate crisis, it will also free us from the whims of fossil fuel producers and lead to cheaper, more reliable power – and lower heating costs. It cannot happen soon enough.

In many ways, it already is happening. Use of renewables has soared in recent years, and it is only getting more efficient and less costly. It is now cheaper to build and operate new large-scale wind farms and solar arrays than run fossil fuel plants.

But we still count on fossil fuels for much of our electricity, and in Maine most residents still use oil to heat their homes. Changes in the price of natural gas and crude oil, then, have a huge effect on household costs, particularly during the winter.

That’s what we’re looking at now. The pandemic messed up supply chains of all sorts, and fossil fuels were no exception. Supply was cut back when demand sunk in response to the virus-related drop in activity.

Now that demand is skyrocketing again, however, producers have been slow to restart, preferring instead to let prices rise so they can maximize profits.

It may be a savvy business strategy. But it will significantly raise costs for nearly every household in Maine.

State regulators say electricity prices could jump as much as 80 percent next year, driven by the rising price of natural gas. The price of crude oil is up, too, with heating oil and propane up along with it.

In fact, rising energy costs have contributed more to inflation in the past month than any other category, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And as with most things, rising prices hit hardest the Americans less able to take them on.

They are not without options, though, even for this winter. Maine has nearly $70 million in federal heating assistance for residents who qualify, as well as $25 million the Mills administration has earmarked to help with home weatherization.

Weatherization could improve an estimated 3,500 low- to moderate-income households, lowering their heating bills right away. But people have to apply: Only 20 percent to 25 percent of eligible households pursue the program.

There is also help available from the state, as well as from the power companies themselves, for electricity bills when they become too high to pay on time.

Homeowners can also install heat pumps. Rebates are available for the devices, and they can save $300 to $600 per year per home over the use of heating oil.

The Biden administration should also consider limiting natural gas exports and releasing inventory from the national petroleum reserves, increasing supply to match demand.

It’s not ideal, even in the short term, to take steps to increase the burning of fossil fuels, but the burden of a high-cost winter would fall disproportionately on the backs of low- and middle-income Americans.

Of course, the $300 per child per month included in President Biden’s Build Back Better plan would, if approved, give families a cushion, as would the checks now going out to working Mainers. Both are a good response to temporary inflation.

More than that, we need to make the long-term investments in clean energy, not only to cut emissions but to lower costs and get us out from under the yoke of fossil fuel companies.

Every time fossil fuels are swapped out for clean energy – every time a new solar array is built, or someone installs a heat pump or buys an electric vehicle – our reliance on gas and oil declines, as does the ability of fossil fuel companies to impose their prices on us.

The sun and wind are free, and the more Mainers are able to use them to run their lights and heat their homes, the less they’ll have to spend the fall wondering how they’ll get through the winter.


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