During the two weeks after Christmas, Maine and the Northeast experienced the coldest continuous weather in 50 years. Degree days, a measure of temperature variations as they affect the heating requirements of buildings, exceeded the previous season’s levels by 55 percent.
Natural gas customers with interruptible supply contracts were turned off so that homes and residential institutions would have fuel. This forced commercial and large-scale users back to alternative fuels, such as oil. Some heat pumps were unable to handle the extreme temperatures, forcing customers to suffer in their homes or find another energy source. New England’s power generating stations consumed 84 million gallons of oil in two weeks — more than the state of Vermont uses in an entire year. Combined with two holidays and three significant winter storms, the cold weather stretched the energy grid to the max, but it did not break.
Maine’s residential energy consumption is only 21.4 percent of the entire mix, with transportation and industrial use almost even at roughly 31 percent each. Commercial energy use brings up the rear at 16 percent.
Almost 42 percent of Maine’s electricity comes from natural gas-fired plants. Though surrounded by water, only 26 percent of our electricity is hydro-supplied. Wind supplies 6 percent of our electricity.
Maine has a checkered past when selecting and using energy resources.
Remember the Dickey-Lincoln hydro project? Stymied by regulations and protests. Maine Yankee nuclear plant? Closed early, while generating electricity at 2 cents per kilowatt hour. The East-West highway-energy corridor? Blocked by rural residents unwilling to connect Canada and Maine to vast resources. Midstream propane storage tank in Searsport? Killed by uneasy residents.
These projects all were intended to help supply the energy necessary to keep Maine running.
Today, we have a nuclear plant across our southern border in Seabrook, N.H., plus one at Point Lepreau, New Brunswick, across the bay from Lubec. We are happy to tap these generating stations for electricity as long as we can keep the spotlight on the other kinds of generation inside our borders.
Our propane comes by rail from Ontario and by ship into Newington, N.H., not unlike the proposal made for Searsport. Much of our oil and gasoline comes from St. John, New Brunswick, after passing by rail through and around Maine.
Nuclear plants in New England will retire soon. Permits for new oil-fired generating stations such as Maine’s Wyman Station are no longer being issued. The push is for natural gas, though the supply is being stymied at our borders. Also on the wish list: solar and wind power expansion.
Hydropower, perhaps the cleanest, most efficient and manageable energy available to us, is not utilized sufficiently. CMP just lost a bid to erect a larger transmission corridor to channel Hydro-Quebec’s humungous energy supply to Massachusetts, a proposal that requires further consideration for use in Maine.
The reality is that oil, propane and, to some degree, natural gas, all are scalable energy — they can be expanded on demand. They can be stored, transported, controlled and delivered as needed — regardless of Mother Nature’s mood swings. With currently available technology, neither wind nor solar can be stored on a sufficient scale or dialed up to meet increased demand as oil and propane can. Consequently oil, propane and natural gas likely will be needed for many more years, even if only as a source of backup power.
Maine’s energy policy needs to include a variety of energies to meet extreme weather situations and a changing economy. Conservation and energy efficiency projects for our aging housing infrastructure should be expanded.
Wind and solar are here to stay. Mount Desert Island towns continue to work on municipal or municipally-sponsored solar generation projects, and the impact on municipal budgets is promising.
The wood pellet boiler at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor has operated since 2011. Officials said the system saved the institution $3 million in its first two years. Other institutions here are eyeing a similar switch.
Hydropower also is needed, whether we use Maine’s or Quebec’s. Dam removals in the last few years were celebrated by the tribes and for restoration of fish runs. But like the state budget, the difference has to be made up somewhere.
Let’s work intelligently to craft a coherent energy policy for Maine.