Come September 2008 dial 2-1-1- for all energy assistance needs —
Governor John Baldacci receives the Emergency Energy Task Force report from John Kerry, director of the Office of Energy Independence and Security. Photo by Ramona du Houx
Article by Ramona du Houx
Many people in Maine are thinking about how they are going to cope with high-energy heating costs for this winter. For some residents on fixed incomes, pensions, or retirement plans, they don’t have ways to come up with the extra money it will take to heat their homes, nor can they invest in products that switch over from oil.
All across Maine, families are cutting back on living expenses to save enough to heat their homes this winter. Heating and transportation fuel costs have increased 100 percent in the last five years. For some, that represents up to 20 percent of their monthly income. The energy crunch has hit everyone, be it at the pump, home heating bills, or the rising cost of food, as the ripple effect sets in.
With news that the U.S. Congress has recessed for five weeks without addressing winterization funding or Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) increases the governor has tasked his administration with finding alternative ways to fund these programs. Baldacci is determined to insure the safety of the people of Maine.
“Maine can’t wait to tackle this problem. We have to begin work today, while it’s still hot outside, if we want to be ready when cold weather arrives,” said Governor John Baldacci.
Last July seven short-term recommendations were made by the Governor’s Pre-Emergency Energy Task Force in a report for the governor, which can help Maine residents prepare for a difficult winter heating season.
“The recommendations put forth will help us be better prepared, and will help to keep people safe and secure in an environment of high energy prices,” said Baldacci.
The Task Force was chaired by John Kerry, director of the Office of Energy Independence and Security.
“Firstly, we have assessed the needs of the state of Maine; secondly, we have projected the resources to meet those needs. Our needs are great, our resources slight. When you look at the short term, we prioritized those action areas and resource to address them. For the long term, we have a comprehensive game plan that will make us energy independent from fossil fuels,” said Kerry. “Right now, this is about immediate needs, so everyone in the state makes it safely through the winter. The energy crisis has been hurting our most vulnerable; now it is affecting the middle class hard. More people could access different State programs already accessible to help cut the cost of energy. And we are planning to augment some of those programs.”
These programs were described in the task force report.
The Maine State Housing Authority has low-interest loans at 3.5 percent, up to $30,000, available to weatherize homes and make them more energy efficient, or to switch to less-costly fuels. The Finance Authority of Maine can help businesses improve their energy efficiency, and Efficiency Maine, can help people reduce electricity consumption. All this information is now available at: http://www.maine.gov/governor/baldacci/policy/energy.shtml.
In addition, utilizing the 2-1-1 call center, where people are directed to community programs and state assistance offices, energy help will be available.
“This report also describes things that we are already doing that we need to tell people about,” said the governor. “We need to empower and help people everywhere, as much as we can. We’ve got to have a one-stop-shop location for people to access this information. When someone calls 2-1-1, we will make sure they are connected to an energy specialist who can help them get the information they need, whether it’s about a low-interest loan or receiving emergency energy assistance.”
The State of Maine has over 300 hotlines and help lines for human services alone and thousands of programs offering all types of services. An easy-to-remember universal number and website, 2-1-1, was created to help people get what they need with ease.
“People can call now,” said Kerry.
At the most it will take thirty days from when an enquiry and commitment is made for an energy program to completed paperwork, once the 2-1-1- system is in full swing in September.
“We need everybody working together. We need to reach out to everyone in 477,000 homes across Maine,” said Baldacci.
The seven-point recommendations are:
• Create the 2-1-1-call center, a single point of entry for Mainers seeking information about energy programs and services.
• Expand weatherization of Maine residences.
• Increase energy audits of homes and businesses.
• Provide statewide education and training for what Maine people can do to prepare for the upcoming winter.
• Expand energy efficiency financing tools for hospitals, schools, nursing homes, municipalities, social service agencies and businesses.
• Increase transportation options and reduce fuel consumption like expanding the state’s GO Maine van pool and ride-sharing programs, and purchasing more environmental friendly buses and extending passenger rail service.
• Create local community teams that would help keep people safe, secure and warm in their homes.
“It’s going to take communities coming together. Maine people have within them the ability of heroic actions. We need everybody working together, and we will get through this,” said the governor. “In Maine, families and businesses are spending roughly $8 billion a year on petroleum. Having our country run around with a tin cup because we are dependent on foreign fuel has to end. With the new administration in D.C., come January, we will have the ability to make energy a priority. For now these short-term recommendations are immediate action steps.”
The task force highlighted a need to keep the state’s elderly and most vulnerable residents warm in their homes. A first step would be to mobilize local teams to seal air leaks and perform basic efficiency measures. This effort would build upon the governor’s existing Keep Me Warm program, with the aim of reaching 5,000 households before winter.
“The message we have for people is to please take responsibility for your life now; don’t wait until winter. Insulate your home now or buy that wood stove now. Break old energy wasting habits. If people take needed actions, and still come up short, we are there to help,” said Kerry. “We’re acting within the resources that we have. In addition we are going to continue to call on the federal government to increase LIHEAP.
Kerry is a former state senator from Saco, who served as the state’s energy director in the 1980s.
“There are many of us that have worked in the energy field that have been predicting that the Northeast was too energy dependent on petroleum products,” said Kerry. “In the 70s and 80s we projected that oil would go to over $100 a barrel; we tried to encourage the federal government and the Legislature to reduce our energy use by at least 20 percent. We’ve come full circle; now real action needs to be taken.”
The state’s current long-term goal is to reduce its reliance on petroleum products to 20 percent.
In addition to the recommendations in the report, the governor also received the reports of the Task Force’s subcommittees, which include valuable discussions of longer-term approaches to reducing Maine’s dependence on foreign oil. The subcommittees include lawmakers, state and local officials, and representatives of utilities, bankers, local oil companies, and charitable and religious groups.
“Back in the 70s we were in an energy crises similar to what we are in now. That’s when I realized that we need to pursue energy alternatives with intensity,” said Rep. Seth Berry, a member of the task force who also sits on the energy and public utilities committee. “The committee brought important energy issues to the forefront. The state now has a great renewable energy program. We are one of only a few states that have a cap and trade initiative to curb greenhouse gas emissions, with REGGI. With crisis comes opportunity. The spike in energy prices has made people more aware of energy issues. Strong leadership from the governor will see that we turn this crisis into an opportunity.”
Kerry has already made emergency plans in case there are situations where people can’t pay for oil but need to keep warm, safe and secure.
“We are in a war mode and have to think like warriors, because if we don’t we will all be in trouble,” said Kerry. “We’re fighting an implacable enemy, because it’s an $8 billion annual bill. All of which is exported out of Maine. That can be turned around. Green-collar jobs are the jobs of Maine’s future.”
Working with MEMA’s emergency management team, shelter locations have been identified, and Kerry will move his office to MEMA’s headquarters in Augusta. It is hoped that with all the precautions and preparations the state is taking now the shelters won’t be needed.
“We’re doing everything, looking at every scenario to make sure no one suffers,” said Kerry.
To make it easier for the public to access this needed information a new website has been set up at: http://www.maine.gov/governor/baldacci/policy/energy.shtml