$20 million federal grant to help transition Maine’s economy with Sustainability Solutions Initiative

By Ramona du Houx - October 19th, 2009 · 

Commissioner Richardson and Gov. John Baldacci at the announcement of the grant award
Commissioner Richardson and Gov. John Baldacci at the announcement of the $20 million Sustainalbe Solutions Epscor grant award. Photo by Ramona du Houx
Maine could become a role model not only nationally but also internationally for how the state transitions sustainably into the 21st-century innovative economy. The foundations have been laid with research and development (R&D) funding that has led and continues to lead to technological breakthroughs. These innovations have started new businesses, which are changing Maine’s economy, building upon the state’s natural strengths. The next step is to ensure the state grows sustainably.

A $20-million Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) grant for the Sustainability Solutions Initiative could help put Maine in the fast lane to a sustainable future.

“Maine is poised to get it right sooner than other areas. We have the R&D capacity of the state to mobilize. We have been working at this approach for three years, already meeting with communities around the state. They’ve told us what they want to see happen and what they need,” said David Hart of the Senator George J. Mitchell Center and project director for the grant.

Ensuring that the state preserves its natural resources sustainably, while growing the economy, is a goal of the initiative. In the past, all across America, city planners and federal agencies have laid out infrastructure plans they thought were good for growth. Sometimes they were successful. Sometimes highways displaced people, and in the name of progress some communities lost their character. Other states have lost natural resources that can’t be replaced. This initiative aims to work with communities — for smart growth.

“The project recognizes that our state’s identity is inseparable from its natural resources, and our future economic prosperity depends on our ability to distinguish what makes Maine so special,” said Governor John Baldacci. “To preserve our quality places we must address issues like sprawl, management of our forest, and climate change. This project will give us expanded options in developing our renewable energy and management of our natural resources. It’s important to our environment and economic future.”

According to Hart, ensuring that people have a real say in the project is critical.

“We all read with great interest the Brookings Report that was commissioned by GrowSmart. They identified key challenges but didn’t tell us how to solve them in the long term; that’s what this initiative will do. Our goal is to be a credible, objective source of research, analysis, and information that can help communities achieve the future they really want,” said Hart. “People want to be in a community of their choice, with clean air and water. Maine can become a beacon for other places that want to achieve a sustainable future. We hope to be real partners to those interested in smart growth.”

Maine’s Economic and Community Development Commissioner John Richardson said, “Sustainability Solutions is a statewide, focused mission to organize the great transition that is underway, of making Maine’s innovative economy sustainable while maintaining and improving the state’s quality of life and achieving smart growth.”

The research portion of this five-year, Maine EPSCoR initiative will be led by UMaine’s Senator George J. Mitchell Center. More than thirty UMaine and USM faculty members from over two dozen disciplines and departments will become the core group of a Center for Sustainability Solutions, based at UMaine. The new center will allow the faculty to perform research and run educational, economic, and workforce development activities in coordination with government and industry experts.

In addition, the grant will fund science, technology, education, and mathematics (STEM) programs for more than 15,000 participants through the Maine STEM Collaborative. It also will be used to upgrade statewide technology infrastructure.

The initiative will create partnerships with Maine’s colleges and universities for research and education efforts designed to advance economic and community development while protecting the environment.

“This proposal builds stronger partnerships between our educational institutions, while bringing together people from all walks of life and government to come up with solutions for the future of the state,” said Baldacci. “This is uniquely a Maine proposal. Researchers and advisers say that Maine could become internationally recognized for the state’s excellence in this emerging field.”

The emerging field of sustainability science is an interdisciplinary, coordinated approach to ways of improving the economy, community, and environment.

“You have to look at all three areas simultaneously, that’s critical. We intend to train the next generation in this new field,” said Hart.

“This next generation of R&D is about bringing different disciplines together. It’s about how we apply R&D to environmental, social and economic challenges that we face. We have areas of clusters of economic activity that we hope to build on and strengthen, such as geographic information systems, new media, forest products, and environmentally sustainable products that can be sold anywhere in the world,” said Charles Colgan, an economics professor at USM’s Muskie School of Public Service.

Under Gov. Baldacci’s leadership, wind, tidal energy production, and energy efficiency efforts are growing. Maine could become an energy exporter. With these renewable energy and new energy systems, homes and businesses in Maine could be able to heat by electricity, instead of oil. The transformation could be huge. This initiative should progress this process.

“Renewable energy and energy efficiency are the leading edges of this transformation. Real sustainability is about where and how we live, work, recreate, and how we move ourselves and goods around. At the same time as we are changing where we get our energy from, we have to address sprawl and what kind of housing we should build,” said Colgan, who is working on the initiative. “We want to make Maine a world leader in the development of the scientific knowledge which an environmentally sustainable economy must be based. These steps will make Maine a world leader in the green-energy economy of the future.”alt

Initially, the project will include a focus on problems related to urbanization, forest management, and climate change. According to the Brookings Report, portions of southern Maine have experienced rapid sprawl, while sales of private forestlands and mill closures are transforming northern and western Maine. Unforeseen redistributions of the population are important factors that change the state’s demographics and economy. According to Colgan, the project will develop computer scenarios that will help predict and advert changes that may not be favorable to smart growth.

“This is solutions-oriented science. It’s a science capable of creating a brighter economic, social, and environmental future for the people of Maine. By working together, we will empower Maine communities and increase our resilience to external shocks, like rising energy cost, global market turmoil, and climate change. This measure will help unleash the potential of the creative economy,” said state economist Catherine Riley.

“The grant is the largest award in the county. It initially represents 300 jobs. Many more jobs could be achieved, because of the ripple effect of renewable energy projects and others in cluster areas of development,” said the governor.

UMaine President Robert Kennedy said, “This is one of the most ambitious educational research programs in the state’s history.”

Over the last five years, UMaine’s R&D facilities have been strengthened by an increase in R&D funding and are attracting scientists from around the world. The Maine Technology Asset Fund awarded a second round of cluster-orientated grants last spring. UMaine’s different departments received over $6.8 million out of the $25 million awarded. UMaine was also a direct partner in seven other projects awarded more than $9 million.

National Science Foundation EPSCoR grant program has seeded funds for many UMaine research and development success stories: The Forest Byproducts Research Initiative, the Institute for Molecular Biophysics, the Advanced Engineering Wood Composite Center, the Laboratory for Surface Science Technology, the Climate Change Institute, plus programming in marine science and aquaculture.

“Each of these initiatives has become a signature, nationally recognized program, giving back to the state of Maine in many ways,” said Kennedy. “And I expect that will continue with this program.”

The governor has been able to save a number of mills from closing their doors in large part by showing them avenues to diversify their products and save energy. Those alternatives are due to the research being conducted at UMaine. The Forest Bioproducts Initiative is working with the Old Town Pulp & Paper Mill to turn wood waste into ethanol, with a $30 million federal energy grant. Baldacci also brought Maine’s boatbuilding industry together into a consortium, Maine Built Boats, which has helped grow the industry. Many of the state’s boat builders use composite technologies, developed at UMaine, that make the hulls stronger and more flexible.

“I’ve witnessed how UMaine’s composite center helped Hodgdon’s boatyard, how cellulosic ethanol research was instrumental to Old Town’s mill to produce biofuels, bringing back 160 workers. These technologies are building Maine’s innovative economy, they are diversifying our mills, boatyards, and forest products industry, adding quality jobs in the state,” said Baldacci. “The Sustainable Solutions initiative will build upon the progress that is underway within all these areas of expertise, for a sustainable, innovative, economic future.”

In addition to the five-year NSF grant, the Maine Economic Improvement Fund is contributing a $5 million grant.

“I don’t make a lot of predictions, but I predict some of the greatest universities in the world will soon be paying close attention to the research team we’ve assembled and the programs we’ve initiated,” said Hart. “With increased recognition will come even greater external funding, unimagined partnerships, improved solutions, and a brighter future for the people of Maine.”

visit www.umaine.edu/sustainabilitysolutions/