Moving without fear to a carbon-free future

By Sarah Miller | Apr 25, 2019

Global warming is frightening. There’s no way around that. What there’s no reason to fear is the transition off fossil fuels and onto renewable electricity and electric vehicles that is vital to keeping global warming within livable limits. On the contrary, that transition is something to welcome. It offers a pathway to an economically fairer, community-friendlier future. New energy can help us take back our towns, farms and factories – without hurting people in other cities, towns and countries in the process.

But won’t renewable electricity be expensive and undependable? If the Green New Dealers have their way, won’t we be cold in winter and hot in summer? Won’t we have to give up our comfortable SUVs – or our aging Subarus – and settle for tiny electric cars that cost a fortune and will barely get us to Portland, much less Boston?

Such claims make the new energy path seem like unpleasant medicine, at best, but they are based on faulty premises, and draw wrong conclusions. First, they assume things are fine now. In fact, many of us can barely afford needed heating oil and spend winters being chilly in poorly insulated homes. Anyone who’s had a heat pump installed lately knows that efficient electric heat makes it easier and cheaper (assuming Central Maine Power doesn’t screw up your bill) to be comfortable. Heat pumps should, and will, figure prominently in Maine’s energy transition.

Insulation is often an even easier, less expensive way to reduce the role of fossil fuels in our lives. One of Janet Mills’ first steps as governor was to unblock funding for weatherization of 100 homes for low-income seniors, a tiny but important first step in facilitating sustainable energy use by Mainers.

The real excitement, though, is in plummeting renewable electricity prices. The all-in cost of generating power from new solar arrays has fallen by 84 percent since 2010, and by 18 percent over the last year alone, research firm Bloomberg NEF calculates. Onshore wind costs are down by 40 percent this decade. Offshore wind, which until recently was not competitive, has seen cost reductions of 56 percent since 2010 and is coming into affordable range. To handle times when solar and wind aren’t available, battery storage costs have plunged by 35 percent just since early 2018.

Solar and wind are now cheaper than coal- or gas-fired power in most of the world without subsidies, including China and India. For much of the U.S., natural gas costs so little that it still makes the cheapest power. But Maine has much higher than U.S.-average gas prices, meaning that renewables already, or soon will, provide our lowest-cost generating capacity. Solar and, to a degree, wind prices will continue to fall, thanks to economies of scale and technology advances. And remember: Once solar panels and windmills are paid for, the absence of fuel cost makes electricity virtually free.

Belfast is a leader in demonstrating just how much solar can save, even in often-overcast coastal Maine. Since December, the town has chopped 90 percent off its municipal power bill with solar installations, including one that started up last December. In time, existing facilities are expected to give Belfast 26 years of free electricity. Other Midcoast towns are working toward similar goals, and new state legislation will hopefully soon make it feasible for homeowners to get in on community solar projects, even if they can’t afford or don’t have room for solar panels on their property.

The energy transition is as much about transportation as it is electricity, and this, too, offers huge benefits for everyday Mainers. EVs are now available at around the U.S. average new-car price of $36,000, with prices falling fast. An EV’s biggest advantage is in its operation, though, not its purchase. Not only do they run on electricity at a small fraction of the cost of gasoline, but these vehicles also have many fewer moving parts, so should last longer with fewer repairs. Like the Volkswagen Bug of yore, only better.

Most important of all, windmills and solar collectors don’t require that fuel be mined or pumped out of the ground, refined and moved long distances on enormous ships or through pipelines by giant corporations that make huge profits. They can be installed by in-state companies, towns, individual households and cooperatives, creating good local jobs along the way. We can be the ones who profit. Good-news stories are rare these days, but renewable, low-carbon energy is just that.

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.