Doing right by Maine’s Energy Commons

Dear Editor:

The Ellsworth American’s Jan. 5 editorial on wind power called to mind the importance of approaching energy policy in a comprehensive and long-range manner, to strive for clarity in the issues we seek to address and the goals and aspirations that we would seek to achieve, and to be equally clear about who the ultimate stakeholders are.

The defining frame of reference for energy policy in our era (“our” meaning Maine, America, plus the rest of world) is what is happening to Earth’s climate. The numbers tell the story. The scientific explanations of what, how and why it is happening are compelling and convincing to all except the “willful” or narrowly self-interested. In the next very few decades, all across the board, the world needs to get off fossil fuels as its principal source of energy and shift to renewables. Maine and Mainers should be uniquely sensitive to the challenge because so many of us are — and stay — here because, to a far greater extent than most American states, we depend on and appreciate the blessings of nature and the wild, since the time of the Red Paint People to the very present.

Maine has abundant indigenous renewable sources of energy — solar, wind, hydro, tidal, wave, biomass, biofuel, geothermal, etc. Some of these are completely within our technical capacity; others will be technologically harnessable in the very near future, certainly within the next crucial 30 years.

Maine, as it happens, uses a lot of fossil fuel energy. Annually, out of our own individual pockets — you, me, grandpa, the new drivers in each high school class — annually send to sources outside of the state $6 billion a year for gas, oil and natural gas. That is twice the size of the state’s annual budget! That $6 billion isn’t tax dollars; it’s from our purses and wallets! More important, it is $6 billion a year that never again circulates within the state economy.

The goal of being energy independent through renewables shouldn’t be for the benefit of the power companies or Maine’s energy sector, the current focus of Maine’s energy planning. It should be for a combination of the population of Maine, now and in the future, and the place we call Maine, now and in the future. If you combine them, the prime stakeholder can be called the energy commons.

To pursue the climate-saving energy goal in a way that there are only winners, no losers, Maine will have to create pretty much from whole cloth new ways of thinking about energy. Right now the energy policy infrastructure in Maine is inadequate to the task. At the state level, it is highly fractionated and undersupported. In fact, localities (like MDI and its “Climate to Thrive” initiative pursuing energy independence for the island by 2030) and individuals (like me when last summer I contracted to become part of a solar farm) are exercising more constructive leadership than the state, which unfortunately seems to be actively fighting needed steps. The principle of magnanimity as captured in the italicized phrase above is critically important — and achievable! If we would think of how the $6 billion a year (nearly a quarter of a trillion over 40 years!) we now send elsewhere could be parlayed into assuring that the needed transitions are carefully identified and made to occur smoothly over time, without pain, and without unfairly stranding private assets that have been applied to local fossil fuel infrastructure that will no longer be viable. We might think of it as a system of compensation for a kind of crucial public-purpose eminent domain action to assure Maine people remain whole.

A tall order? No taller than getting to the moon and back or eradicating smallpox or creating our interstate highway system. It will require leadership, though.

Energy policy, in sum, is of far wider and deeper import than the editorial suggests. A brief survey conducted last summer of more than 60 Maine leaders in state energy policy made it clear respondents thought long-range comprehensive energy policy is very much needed and, conversely, very unlikely to be undertaken under current circumstances. The limited state efforts under way do not define the stakeholders broadly enough and are absent any real sense of urgency. The stakes are huge. Maine needs to do its part. No one can afford to wait for someone else to start. On behalf of the energy commons, citizens should join in making our voices heard in Augusta this legislative session.

Hendrik D. Gideonse


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