Governor Baldacci created the solar rebate program three years ago. Each year the program gives out $500,000 in rebates to homeowners and businesses. The rebates provide up to $3,000 for residential systems and up to $10,500 for commercial systems. Photo by Ramona du Houx

August/September 2008Exclusive interview with Governor John E. Baldacci by Ramona du Houx

“Maine can be a real green state, an energy state, a renewable state — a real solution for the country,” said Governor John Baldacci in an interview discussing Maine’s energy needs, how the state is helping people combat the high cost of oil, and the state’s potential as a renewable energy supplier.

“As a kid growing up I remember, back in the early seventies, when we couldn’t buy gasoline on Sundays. It really hurt our family and our family business, as it did with others in Maine, and nationally. I remember that like a scar, and I thought America should never be in that position.

“These energy crises are more about manipulation and speculation, and not supply and demand. It underscores the fact that we need to be dependent upon our own resources, and we need to be able to do it in a renewable fashion and to do what we need to do to keep this country safe and secure and independent of foreign sources.”

When oil prices came back down in the seventies, many people thought the oil crisis had ended. The majority of Americans continued to heat with oil, sales of gas-guzzling vehicles increased, and the nation became more dependent upon foreign energy sources. As a result of years of misusing the world’s natural resources, global warming has become a scientific reality, and oil barons are making huge profits. The governor believes it’s time we all make energy changes in our lifestyles.

“It’s a call to arms. Everybody everywhere has to understand individually, systematically, and structurally that we all need to change. What’s happening now is that too many others are calling the shots in terms of the economy, our security, and our foreign policy, and it all goes back to the source of energy that is outside our control — oil.

“I’d like to see a future where there are more electric cars; we are more dependent upon electricity that is generated by wind, tidal, and solar power. At the same time to realize the opportunity to get transportation and heating more efficiently with domestic sources of energy and strengthen our country, our economy and our environment. This situation is tailor made for this country to regain its prominence in the world as a real leader. We can lead again in the future, best practices around the world.”

Governor Baldacci foresaw a possible energy crunch. Realizing that 80 percent of Maine homes are reliant on oil, he set up the Office of Energy Independence and Security in 2003.

“From my earlier experiences and frustrations, we set up this Office of Energy Independence and Security when oil was $20 a barrel. At that time I knew the public wasn’t going to understand that this was an important measure, because there wasn’t anything dramatic going on with energy then, but I hoped it would give us an opportunity to become a laboratory for energy saving ideas. We started buying hybrid Priuses, and doing car and van pooling. We now use 100 percent renewable energy for state government’s electrical needs. By using biodiesel for State buildings, we save about 13,000 gallons of Number 2 heating oil every year. We started conservation methods in all departments. We’re doing things smarter by using the resources we had.”

By initiating these energy saving ideas, without investing a dime, not only did the state use less energy, it managed to save funds.

“Because of the steps we had taken, we were in better shape when we faced a budget shortfall. To the surprise of the press, at that time we didn’t have to make a budget appropriation, because when we changed our energy practices we lessoned our energy demands and stretched those dollars.

“We also got involved in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. With Maine leading the initiative, we worked with ten Northeastern states to create the region’s first carbon cap-and-trade system — known as RGGI (Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative) in 2007. By doing all these things, we are becoming more energy efficient and more environmental friendly. It’s using less dollars and cents and emitting less pollution into the air. It’s something that makes sense all the way around.”

Maine’s leadership in renewable energy issues has gained national recognition.

“I’ve already been approached by Rep. Ed Markey, who heads up the Speaker of House’s renewable energy team. He wants to know how he can help Maine. They are working on it nationally, and they like what Maine is doing. He’s been a good colleague and has been responsive. Maine has done a lot of things, but more needs to be done.”

Simple steps, like winterization of a home could save $800 a year. The governor set up an energy task force to help residents during this energy crisis and will be implementing more energy measures to ease the burden on the people of Maine. He is encouraging everyone to start to change how they use energy, so they can save money and become more energy independent.

PHOTO: Gov. Baldacci lets an interested viewer turn on the solar pannel that was unveiled at the State House to help promote the governor’s rebate program.

“The only thing is that you are not able to do as much and as soon as fast as you want to. It’s like Harold Alfond used to say, ‘If you start cutting wood today and you keep at it, soon you are going to accumulate a woodpile.’ There is no better time than the present for folks to get started.”

To help residents and businesses become more energy efficient and save money, the state already has a number of programs available, and now there will be easier access to them.

“Efficiency ME, the Finance Authority of Maine, Maine State Housing Authority, with the weatherization and low-income heating programs, are already out there. They are doing wonderful work for people, but what we found out is there was no common point to access all the programs offered by the State. So I said, let’s go directly to the people in the communities by using the 2-1-1 call system that’s established, not only for fuel information, but also for food information. So people understand that there is a central place they can go for the connections they need to make — to access all this information and put these resources to work for them.”

Becoming more energy independent means new green-collar jobs will be created, here in Maine. And that has begun to happen.

2761676037bc5032-baldacci3“There is a real example in Maine. The Newport Fabrication Company, in Newport Maine, (photo left)  is currently building windmill component parts for General Electric Wind. At the same time you have Habib Dagher, [director of the Advanced Structures and Composites Laboratory at UMaine] who is doing research with composites for windmill blades with Tim Hodgdon, of Hodgdon Yachts. They are working on a windmill composite blade pilot program for General Electric. The idea is, with wind power, not only are we going to have renewable clean energy and more stable electricity rates, we are also going to build those windmills component parts in Maine, creating an industry within the industry. There will be a tremendous ripple impact throughout Maine’s economy. Right now $8 billion dollars that we spend in Maine on oil is going outside this country. We will be able to keep the money here, put people to work here, and stimulate the economy. It’s a very positive direction.

“I met with a group this week that wants to have an offshore wind project. The potential is great. A Massachusetts company is working with Habib on it. It’s 23 miles outside Casco Bay, away from sight, and will mix in with the coral reefs. In time, Maine could be heating with electricity instead of oil.”

Currently, there are no wind energy systems operating in coastal U.S. waters. Wind power offshore in the Gulf of Maine contains 100 gigawatts of wind energy potential, which is equivalent to roughly 10 percent of the nation’s electricity needs. According to Dagher, tapping into only 5 percent of that potential would provide enough electricity to power all of the homes in Maine with enough energy to heat them.

The governor says a single solution to our energy needs isn’t practical and that the best solution would be a combination of utilizing our natural resources in a sustainable way.

“Dietitians will tell you nothing in excess, everything in moderation. We need to have a balanced energy portfolio; we can’t have too many eggs in one basket. We have wind, waves, and wood. With 19 million acres of forestry lands, we have enough wood resources out there for all our commercial needs as well as to heat our businesses and homes.

“I think wood is a terrific opportunity for Maine. Our Wood-to-Energy task force that Les Otten is heading up with Commissioner Pat McGowan of the Department of Conservation has the focus on advising people how to convert to wood pellet stoves, from ranges to furnaces. Wood pellets are a great domestic resource, and by manufacturing them here, we are keeping dollars here. There has been a huge public reaction from the wood-pellet initiative. The pellets are in large supply, more stoves are becoming available, and the savings are substantial.”

Keeping Maine’s forestry lands sustainable for future generations is a priority of the Baldacci administration.

“We are going to continue to work with UMaine researchers to find other fuels to go into these wood pellet stoves, so they aren’t as dependent upon the type of pure wood grain they now use, to take less pressure off the forest resources.”

Some people can’t afford the wood pellet alternative and are looking at burning cords of wood.

“It’s going to be a hard winter; people need to keep warm, safe and be secure. Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Lands has a firewood sales program where the public can go in and collect their own wood. Eighty percent of homes in Maine use oil; for a lot of people, using wood is new to them. We’re going to be creating pubic announcements to inform the public about heating with wood, from cutting it, drying it, and using it safely. People need to know you can’t burn railroad ties, telephone poles, and wet wood creates creosote.”

The Pine Tree State’s wood resource has a myriad of applications that are beginning to be discovered with innovative research and development programs. Every part of a tree can be used, including turning the waste that used to be dumped into Maine’s rivers, into energy.

“The cellulose ethanol research that is going on at UMaine with Red Shield Environmental has a $30 million Department of Energy grant that will let them build a cellulose pilot program. Now they are going to be able to really focus on the beneficial part of this — the wood waste. Instead of dumping waste into the water, they are going to be extracting it and creating energy from it. That’s good for the environment and good for the economy. I’m very excited about the wood resource we have. By keeping our wood resource sustainable, we are the Saudi Arabia of wood.”

Transmission of electricity is an important factor to a renewable energy future. Working with Primer Shawn Graham of New Brunswick, Governor Baldacci is opening up new avenues for energy transmission.

“Aroostook County is an island unto itself and needs a power connection to New Brunswick, and New Brunswick needs a power connection going into the Northeast. We need to have better and more stable rates for our families and businesses. So Premier Graham and I have a common bond, we share the same issues. We signed Memorandums of Understanding which are in the second or third phases, and we will be addressing that at the New England Governor’s and Eastern Canadian Premiers meeting in Bar Harbor this fall.”

While more wind projects are making news regularly, how to channel this renewable energy to homes across the nation remains a national problem that needs addressing. America has a grid system that transmits electricity, but because it is antiquated, it limits electricity generated in rural areas from reaching the grid. Al Gore stated that the country needs to completely overhaul this system. Governor Baldacci has a solution that he brought up at the recent National Governors meeting.

“What we should be undertaking, as a country is what Eisenhower did with the National Interstate Highway system. The electricity transmission system needs to be a national highway-type project. It needs to be overhauled to connect these renewable energy resources everywhere in the country. These wind resources are generally in rural, remote areas. Whether they are in Montana or Aroostook Co., Maine, these energy sources need to be connected to the grid.”

As a member of the Federal ISO, Maine contributes energy for the New England regional grid but ends up paying more for electricity because costs are shared.

“You can’t have a million people in Maine having to pay millions of dollars of costs, that’s an unfair burden. You need this to be a national responsibility, like the highway system was. I’ve talked to Ed Rendell, the governor of Pennsylvania, who is the new leader of the Governors Association. He’s making infrastructure his focus, and he’s excited about this idea. I’ve talked to others who are excited about promoting this idea to a new Congress with a new administration. Energy transmission is key.”

Governor Baldacci has been progressing the state of Maine with energy ideas and solutions since he came to office. By initiating many renewable energy programs, providing incentives for alternative energies, streamlining regulations for wind power, creating ways for the state to use its natural resources sustainably, and investing in innovation, Maine is ahead of the curve. The state has a positive direction for a future that can be independent of fossil fuels. High-earning, green-collar jobs are being created. The governor gives credit to the people of Maine for making it happen.

“Maine is on the path to a more secure and independent energy future. Maine can be a real green state, a renewable-energy-exporting state. Maine can be a real solution for the country. I’ve been very well served by the people that work for me and people in the Legislature. A lot of these ideas come from people I talk to everyday — it’s what common sense tells us. It’s my responsibility to bring the best of these ideas forward. There are a lot of thoughtful, caring people in Maine who are very innovative, and I enjoy the interactions because they are coming up with ideas and suggestions that I’ve never heard before, and they are always ahead of the curve. It bubbles up from the people. The reason we can be on the cutting edge in Maine is because our people have such a direct connection to their governor, congressmen, and senators. We work all on the same level. We are self-motivated in each other; we know we don’t have any other alternatives; we have to work together to get things done.”