July 13, 2020

Alternative energy now seems more attractive> Dependence on electricity questioned

For the thousands of Mainers who have gone days and in some cases more than a week without power, the ice storm of 1998 is sure to make some take a hard look at alternative energy sources and becoming more self-sufficient.

“People are definitely going to consider alternatives,” says Laurie Lachance, the state economist at the Maine Planning Office.

Nine years ago, the Lachance family installed a wood stove in their home. “We never once used it until this storm because it was the only way we could keep the house warm,” Lachance said.

“We are an electrical society and so much of what we do depends on it,” said Jim Connors, a senior policy development specialist and the director of the state’s biomass energy program at the State Planning Office. Connors says electricity has become more than just a convenience. “It is an essential necessity,” he said.

Pam Person of Orland, the vice chairwoman of the Coalition For Sensible Energy, a volunteer, nonprofit organization, says the recent storm has taught people the importance of having backup alternatives for heat such as a wood stove, and getting a supply of water, such as from a dug well that can be hand-pumped.

Person says energy efficiency has gone in the wrong direction in recent years. She says more efficient products and new technologies are available, but they are not being brought to market because the market is controlled by various sectors that are interested in keeping people energy-inefficient.

“Because prices have been so low we have drifted away from doing things that increase energy conservation,” said Person. “We lost our direction. We lost the incentive because the energy crisis disappeared and oil prices got low.”

The state economist agreed that oil prices are low and this has encouraged Mainers to become more reliant on oil.

Oil embargoes of the mid-1970s and early 1980s pushed prices up and prompted many Mainers to install wood stoves as a primary source of heat or as a backup.

Connors says the highest level of wood consumption occurred in 1980 when more than 1 million cords of firewood was being burned. That number has dropped dramatically in recent years, down to between 300,000 and 400,000 cords a year.

Person and Connors say solar power can be an alternative source of energy. For example, the weekend weather after the ice storm was sunny. “If I had had solar panels on my house and a battery backup system, I could have run my furnace,” Connors said.

Solar panel systems were relatively expensive to install during the energy crisis of the 1970s and early 1980s, but Connors says technological advances have meant more efficient panels with prices that have come down.

Despite these advances, he says the cost per kilowatt-hour is more expensive than buying electricity off the grid. Connors says most typical Maine homes would not be able to operate solely from solar energy power. “But you could have gotten through a storm crisis as long as you had storage capacity,” said Connors.

Although solar energy may not be the sole answer for Mainers, Person says solar hot-water systems can help people save money every month on their electric bills.

Person, who has gone without electricity for eight days, says there are many things people can do to cope and to be better prepared in the future.

She has two wood stoves, one in the cellar keeping her pipes from freezing and one in her sunroom making life bearable for living. Person says south-facing, double-pane windows not only can provide light, but some heat. “One of the reasons we are coping after eight days and our house is at 46 degrees is because we have a whole pile of insulation with proper ventilation,” Person said. She says people should consider insulation with high R-values, a measure of the degree of insulation, for new additions or new construction of homes.

She recommends people keep gadgets such as can openers and coffee pots that don’t require electricity.

Person says people should pay close attention to some of the new products being developed that can save on energy use. She says new types of roofing materials are being developed that will act like solar panels and after the turn of the century new refrigerators will be 30 percent more efficient.

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