The city's Climate Crisis Committee and Belfast Free Library hosted a talk with four panelists March 29 called "After Summit: How Do We Get to Carbon Neutrality by 2045?" which looked at the relative merits of natural gas and heat pumps as heating sources.

It was prompted by Summit Natural Gas's proposing, then rescinding, its estimated $90 million natural gas pipeline expansion through the Midcoast. The roughly 30 people who attended the forum had the chance to ask panelists questions and share comments.

The panelists were Matt Marks, executive director of the Association of General Contractors of Maine and a representative on the Maine Climate Council; Dan Sosland, president of the Acadia Center; Andy Meyer, senior program manager and expert in heat pumps with Efficiency Maine; and Jonathan Fulford, member of the executive committee of the Sierra Club's Maine chapter.

Maine has a goal of reducing greenhouse gases in the state 80% by 2050 and the goal mentions using natural gas in some part during the transition period to clean energy, Climate Crisis Chairman Jon Beal said, but it is unclear when natural gas would be phased out.

Efficiency Maine, an independent agency administering programs to improve efficiency of energy use and reduce greenhouse gases in Maine, agreed to participate in the forum to provide facts regarding heat pumps, but takes no position on a gas pipeline through the Midcoast. Summit was asked to participate in the event, but could not come to an agreement with the CCC and library on a format, Beal said.

Summit had marketed its pipeline expansion as a way to reduce greenhouse gases, but after a Rockland public meeting held online drew opposition from nearly all of the meeting’s 150 participants, the company backed away from the project.

Beal said natural gas releases smaller amounts of greenhouse gases upon combustion than oil, which is commonly used as a heating source in the state.

Panelists discussed issues with natural gas, one of which is how it is referred to as “natural,” which is a “wonderful marketing term,” Sosland said. Acadia Center refers to the industry as “fossil gas.”

Fulford said the process of extracting natural gas is environmentally damaging and releases gases. He said it was unclear how damaging the process is until recent years, when satellite detection gave a more accurate depiction of how much methane was being released during extraction. Natural gas companies claim the substance is cleaner, based on lower emissions when it is burned, but those calculations do not consider the extraction and compression process.

Natural gas companies inject a mix of substances into the bedrock to access the natural gas, and in the process surrounding aquifers are poisoned, probably permanently, Fulford said. All the while, methane is being released during extraction and compression. Many of the extraction sites and compressors are in rural areas, where people earn low wages.

Fulford and Sosland agreed that it is unnecessary to convert from oil to natural gas, then from natural gas to heat pumps. Heat pump technology is market-ready and cost-effective without converting to natural gas first, Sosland said.

Heat pumps have an outdoor unit that transfers heat to indoor units, according to the U.S. Department of Energy website.

Heat pump technology 20 years ago was not practical for use as a primary heating source because it did not work efficiently below freezing temperatures, Meyer said. Now, the technology has advanced to the point that it can work in temperatures below 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

People usually start by installing one unit in their house, and add more over time at a cost of about $3,500 per unit, Meyer said. Demand for heat pumps did not dwindle during 2020, as Meyer said he thought might happen because of the pandemic.

Marks said he does not want Maine to miss out on the economic opportunities the renewable energy industry can offer. It could expand trade industries in Maine. He said the state needs more people in trades.

Maine also needs to reach out to communities where wind and solar projects are best suited, he said. “So much community engagement needs to happen between now and the execution of those projects,” he said.