ELLSWORTH — When Governor Janet Mills spoke at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York at the end of September, she made a surprise announcement: she had issued an executive order pledging that Maine would be carbon-neutral by 2045.
Going carbon-neutral means the state would make no net contribution of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. In practice, that means reducing the use of fossil fuels and either sequestering remaining emissions in trees and soil or buying carbon offsets to even out the rest.
Going carbon-neutral would be a major achievement: although dozens of countries and states have made similar pledges, only one country — tiny Bhutan, nestled in the Himalayas east of Nepal — has done it.
Carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas contributing to alterations in the Earth’s atmosphere. We consume energy and emit greenhouse gases through our daily actions — watching Netflix, driving to work, sending text messages, turning on the heat.
The Maine Legislature this spring committed to reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent (compared to 1990 levels) by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050.
What do those commitments and the carbon-neutral pledge mean for Hancock and Washington counties?
“There’s a broad range of things,” said Judy East, executive director of the Washington County Council of Governments, from more green spaces and bike paths, walkable cities, more electric vehicle charging stations and renewable power, such as hydro, solar and wind.
Hancock County has a number of wind farms, including the recently approved Weaver Wind, which will boost the state’s wind generating power by roughly 7 percent if the turbines are as efficient as the company building them has predicted.
Maine already has a majority of its energy come from renewable sources. In 2017, seventy-five percent of the state’s net electricity generation came from renewable energy sources (wood, hydro and wind), including 20 percent from wind, according to the U.S. Energy Information Association.
Hydroelectric dams account for the greatest portion (33 percent), followed by biomass generators (25 percent, most of which use wood waste) and then wind.
“Eastern Maine Electric Cooperative is powering the phone I’m talking to you on,” said East, speaking from her office in Machias. “A sizeable chunk of eastern Washington County is served by the Eastern Maine Electric Cooperative. Most of that electricity comes from New Brunswick, from hydroelectric and solar.”
There are also increasing incentives for building solar arrays, East said.
“The economics of solar generation have gotten significantly less expensive just in the last five years.”
Transportation will be the big challenge, particularly in rural counties with little public transportation, such as Hancock and Washington counties. Transportation in Maine accounts for the majority of climate-altering emissions, according to the Portland Press Herald — 54 percent of them, compared to 37 percent in the nation as a whole.
Encouraging more residents to drive electric vehicles will help, of course, and making sure they have places to plug those vehicles in is key.
There are already a number of electric vehicle charging stations, said East, including one in Ellsworth, a number on Mount Desert Island and one each in Blue Hill, Bucksport and Winter Harbor.
“We are increasing the number and range of those facilities. There has been a lot of effort to get that network in place so that visitors, commuters, everybody isn’t stranded in an area that’s unserved.”
Eastport recently decided to buy a plug-in hybrid vehicle to use to give seniors rides, said East.
But altering transportation habits also means designing cities that are more walkable, with affordable housing downtown so residents don’t have to climb in their cars to go to the grocery store or the bank.
“We’ve been working on that for years,” said East, “Planning residential places where your services are.”
Then there’s heating and cooling, which is a challenge in a state with old housing stock and cold winters.
“Conservation [of energy] is the low-hanging fruit,” said Ivan Fernandez, a professor at the University of Maine Climate Institute. At the community level, that means making sure residents have access to information about weatherization incentives and rebates.
It also means updating building code requirements to ensure new buildings are constructed efficiently.
When it comes to taking up carbon that’s already in the atmosphere, “We’ve got a lot of opportunities in Maine,” said East, “because we have so much forested land and so much agricultural land. Washington and Hancock counties fit that bill really well.”
Trees capture and store carbon in their leaves and trunks, converting it to wood and using it to grow.
“Trees are the best gadget we have to take up carbon from the atmosphere,” said Fernandez. “So protecting, nurturing and expanding our green spaces is important.”
It’s not only forests that play a part in trapping carbon – dirt does too.
Healthy soil not only grows more nutrient-rich food, prevents erosion and increases crop yields, it also traps carbon, so making sure farmers have access to resources to help them build robust soil is important.
There’s an economic incentive in encouraging healthy soils and forests, director of the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future Hannah Pingree told The Press Herald, if the state can demonstrate its forests can provide verifiable, sustainable new carbon sinks.
“Our ability to sequester carbon in Maine will be enormous,” she said, meaning the state could potentially sell carbon offsets to other places of the world that can’t grow new forests. “It’s an economic opportunity.”
Asked what she imagined downtown Machias would look like by 2050, East replied:
“I could see more solar, more small wind generation, a whole lot more electric vehicles, a lot more people walking and biking, and you know, a town that knows it’s going to survive into the next century based on the actions it took when it understood its vulnerabilities.”
“I hope I’m right.”