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July 11, 2016 Inside the Notebook

Getting to 100% renewable energy by 2050? Ambitious, but not impossible

In reporting my story “Myth or fact: How do energy costs in Maine stack up to the nation?” in the June 27 issue of Mainebiz, I realized early in the process that whatever I wrote would be merely the tip of the iceberg. That's because the challenge of lowering our electricity costs — which are the lowest in New England but remain a challenge for Maine businesses competing against companies in regions of the United States with significantly lower electricity costs — is by no means a simple question with a clear solution that works equally well for everyone.

So it came as a surprise to me that the speakers at a June 10 panel discussion on Maine's future energy mix hosted by the OceanView at Falmouth Retirement Community — namely, Fortunat Mueller of ReVision Energy; Claudette Townsend, director of new products and services at Dead River; Tony Buxton, chairman of the energy group at Preti Flaherty; and Naomi Beal, director of passivhausMAINE — were able to find a good deal of common ground.

I was expecting fireworks. Instead, I heard Buxton make nuanced arguments about the role natural gas is playing as a “bridge” that will help us transition to a future energy mix of solar, wind and other renewable energy sources, with everyone agreeing that it's vitally important to continue investing in energy efficiency to reduce heating and electricity costs.

“We're a fan of using less; whatever it is. And having multiple options,” said Townsend, who envisions a “very diversified” mix of energy sources in Maine by 2050. The transition away from heating oil is well under way, she added, with heating oil consumption having gone down 43% since 2004. “More and more, consumers are finding ways to have diverse choices within their own homes … Some of that 43% is due to diversification, but a lot is about efficiency.”

Putting efficiency first is the focus of passivhausMaine, which follows the construction and design principles developed in Germany that result in buildings that require 90% less energy for heating than buildings of traditional design. Beal cited the new Friends School of Portland, on Route 1 in Cumberland Foreside, as a prime example of the benefits: With passivhaus design, the building didn't need to be connected to the natural gas line and uses solar as its main power source.

Mueller, for his part, cited Stanford University scientist Mark Jacobson's 50-state roadmap for transforming the country from dependence on fossil fuels to 100% renewable energy by 2050.

Jacobson projects that solar power will supply a little more than 20% of Maine's total renewable energy mix in 2050, with 5.4% coming from residential rooftop solar and 15% from utility-scale solar power plants and 1.8% from commercial or government rooftop solar. Offshore wind is pegged at 35% of the mix, onshore wind at 35%, wave devices at 1%, hydroelectric at 5.8% and tidal turbines at 1%. It also predicts Maine's average energy costs for power derived from wind, water and solar would be 11.4-cents-per-kilowatt hour in 2050 — pegging the business-as-usual energy costs for continuing with fossil fuels and nuclear power at 11 cents/kwh in 2050, with another 5.7 cents/kwh included for health and climate change costs resulting from fossil fuels.

Ambitious? Yes. Achievable? Mueller thinks so.

“I tend to think that 2050 is roughly the right time period,” he said.

You can watch the entire June 10 panel discussion on Maine's future energy mix hosted by the OceanView at Falmouth Retirement Community, online.

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