Commentary: Memo to state lawmakers: If Maine can do it, so can we
According to National Geographic, Americans use some 100 billion plastic bags made from 12 million barrels of oil annually. (Joe Raedle | Getty Images)
This year, our family decided to cross the Piscataqua River and spend the holiday in Maine – a first for me as a committed Granite Stater. Although I maintain that New Hampshire’s mountains, moose, and maple syrup are unrivaled anywhere, I have to admit that I was impressed by Maine’s recent record on environmental protection. As the new legislative session gets underway, our state would do well to consider three simple policies road-tested by our northeastern neighbor to protect the people and planet we hold dear.
1. Take a pass on plastic
While picking up groceries in Bangor, I was surprised to learn that single-use plastic bags are now a thing of the past under a new state law. A small sign at check-out informed me of my options: buy a sturdy reusable bag for 5 cents or bring my own and save 5 cents. Looking around at the other check-out lines, I was amazed that no one seemed to be using any plastic bags at all. I loaded up my groceries in my arms and walked out.
On further investigation, I learned that Maine is one of eight states that limit plastic bags, along with 340 municipalities and 60 nations around the world. The logic of these bans, which have been shown to effectively cut consumption without compromising quality of life, is simple enough. According to National Geographic, Americans use some 100 billion plastic bags made from 12 million barrels of oil annually — enough for one new bag per person every day of the year.
In addition to the added consumption of climate-warming fossil fuels, 91 percent of plastics are never recycled in the United States but find their way into landfills, oceans, or strewn across the land. There they take thousands of years to photodegrade into microplastics, which continue to leach toxins and pollute the environment indefinitely. Among the many plant and animal species harmed by their chemical leachates are the marine bacterium Prochlorococcus, considered the world’s most important microorganism because it provides a tenth of all the oxygen we need to live. If these statistics take your breath away, then join me in urging New Hampshire legislators to take a pass on plastic bags like our neighbor.
2. A new feat in heat
When checking into our holiday rental in central Maine, our family was astonished to find no furnace or fireplace. Instead, the well-insulated 1890s home was fully heated with a pair of high-efficiency electric heat pumps, also known as mini-splits, and a few electric baseboards in the harder-to-reach rooms. For the duration of our five-day stay, with nighttime temps dipping down near zero, we didn’t burn an ounce of fossil fuels onsite. Instead, the heat pump condensers collected warm air molecules from outside and pumped them into the home, delivering a silent stream of pollution-free heating.
As it happens, our heating situation – like the lack of plastic bags – was a direct response to Maine state policies. While New Hampshire’s Republican leaders have repeatedly sought to slash energy efficiency funds (a feat recently achieved by the NHPUC), Maine is two years into a 100,000 heat pumps campaign that is adding millions in local investment and thousands of private-sector jobs. For every heat pump system installed, Maine families are expected to save between $300 and $600 per year while also gaining access to air conditioning in summer. Because they operate at two to three times the efficiency of conventional heating and cooling technology. The state expects to fully fund the program by cutting electric capacity costs for all ratepayers. Sounds like a Maine no-brainer to me.
But where are all those added electrons coming from as Maine converts not just its heating but also transportation loads from oil to electricity? The answer brings us to the third and most impactful piece of Maine’s environmental innovations that New Hampshire leaders would do well to consider in Concord: taking homegrown clean energy to scale.
3. Harness the sun
Driving through rural Maine, we couldn’t help but notice a new addition to the landscape: community solar farms. Fields of solar panels, ranging from one acre to 20, filled decommissioned landfills, gravel pits, and the occasional farmer’s field. One offset the municipal needs of the town in which we stayed. Others serve hundreds of homes, schools, and nonprofits in the form of monthly bill credits corresponding to gigawatts of clean electricity fed into the grid.
Most striking of all, none of the solar farms we encountered across Maine existed just two years ago. While both Maine and New Hampshire were slow to harness our region’s most abundant and inexpensive source of energy, the inauguration of Maine’s Democratic Gov. Janet Mills in 2019 brought a pair of far-sighted policies aimed at slashing carbon emissions while building the clean energy economy. The first set science-based targets to transition the state’s electricity mix to 80 percent renewable by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050 – a far cry from New Hampshire’s 25.2 percent RPS. The second established practical pathways for meeting those targets, including raising the artificial net metering cap from under one megawatt to five for all generators (a change that enjoys bipartisan support in Concord but was repeatedly vetoed by Gov. Chris Sununu).
Although Maine’s solar capacity is expected to quadruple in a few short years, the total footprint will likely remain a fraction of 1 percent of the state’s land. When paired with the almost limitless potential of offshore wind, hydropower, and energy storage, the state could well achieve its 100 percent goal ahead of schedule, while adding thousands of well-paying jobs and cutting costs for all.
As a member of New Hampshire’s clean energy economy, which is falling far behind Maine and the rest of the region, I hope our leaders will finally declare our state open for business in solving the climate crisis. As a father of three young kids who stand to inherit an uninhabitable earth, I pray they won’t delay.
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