If that warning of potential blackouts this winter from the operator of the New England power grid got your attention, you are not alone.

A consortium of New England heating oil dealers saw it, too, and expressed their concern in a letter to each of the region’s governors.

Under the headline “Do not let Texas’s tragedy be repeated in New England,” the dealers pleaded with Janet Mills and the other governors to stop subsidizing conversions to electric heat pumps before it’s too late.

“Enough is enough,” they wrote. “We cannot stand idly by while dangerous electrification policies and system conversions put our neighbors and communities at risk. … The lives of our states’ residents – your constituents – may very well depend on it.”

Letters like that kind of make you feel all warm inside, until you consider the source. That’s right, folks, companies that make money from the burning of fossil fuels want to undermine state climate change policies that get people to burn less of them. This is what’s known as concerned trolling – self-serving gamesmanship dressed up as empathy. The oil dealers jumped on some bad news (a predicted spike in the price of natural gas), mixed it with vague memories of last year’s blackout in Texas and tried to turn the whole thing into a reason to do nothing.

It’s the kind of argument we should get used to, as the fight against global warming heats up. The oil dealers are just giving us a crude window into the strategy. There are still pockets of all-out climate deniers – people who say that global warming is a hoax dreamed up by the liberals to control us – but they are not on the front lines any more.

Now we should expect to hear from people like the oil dealers, who claim that they are allies in the fight against climate change but are against a specific policy or program, such as Maine’s goal of installing 100,000 heat pumps by 2025.

Heat pumps have nothing to do with the potential power outages. We are not running out of electricity, but we are overly reliant on natural gas, which is surging in price. Blackouts in New England are not inevitable or even likely, but a worst-case scenario presented by the grid operator, ISO-New England.

The oil dealers are targeting heat pumps because they work. They warm and cool indoor spaces at a lower cost than other systems, and because they run on electricity, they will become progressively less carbon intensive as renewable power comes online.

And the use of heat pumps has been one area of the climate fight that hasn’t bogged down in controversy (so far). The technology had no bigger supporter than former Gov. Paul LePage, who converted the Blaine House from an oil furnace to heat pumps, claiming it cut the monthly bill by 70 percent. He pushed Efficiency Maine, the agency that uses money from ratepayers to finance energy conservation, to introduce a rebate program for heat pumps, which continues under Mills’ leadership. It may be the only thing they don’t have to debate in the upcoming election.

The transition to electric heat and electric vehicles will require us to generate a lot more electricity than we do now, but we are not going to run out of electricity any time soon. The transition is just not happening fast enough.

The oil dealers reference to “Texas’s tragedy” should also be a red flag.

Last February, an unprecedented cold snap hit a state in which many homes don’t have real heating systems. There was a huge spike in demand for electricity as people broke out space heaters while some major power generators shut down because of frozen pipes and other weather-related calamities, causing a long blackout.

Some attempted to blame wind power for the collapse, but it was mostly coal- and gas-fired plants that shut down and could not restart. The real fault lay with Texas’ energy planners, who designed their grid to deliver low prices at the cost of reliability, and the lack of transmission lines that could have brought power into the state from places that were not affected by the cold weather.

But the initial charge that somehow climate-friendly wind power brought the system down stuck in people’s minds and will likely be brought up again whenever someone wants to block progress.

If the oil dealers really want to protect us from volatile energy prices, then they should join the fight to replace fossil fuels with reliable renewables like wind and solar, where virtually all the cost comes up front and can be predictably spread out over time.

Of course, that would mean embracing electrification, which is probably where we’ll find that their deep concern for our wellbeing runs out of gas.


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