Jeremy Payne and Jeff Marks: Maine facing energy challenges and opportunities

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On Day One of the next governor’s term in January, at the start of a cold, dark Maine winter, “keeping Mainers’ warm and their lights on” will be among the top challenges of his agenda.

Helping home and business owners manage their energy costs while protecting the environment will continue as a critical issue throughout his administration. And, leveraging the factors and partnerships that support employment in the alternative energy sector may be his legacy.

To help achieve economic development and sustainable job growth in Maine, we are supportive of programs and policies that spur development of renewable and efficient heating energy systems and fuels as well as energy generation from onshore and offshore wind, biomass, biofuels, geothermal, hydro, tidal and solar resources.

The alternative energy industry is growing in Maine and we must take advantage of the energy, environmental and economic opportunities. Maine’s quality of life is very positive for businesses. Natural resources in Maine are an asset, and there is a strong and robust supply chain.

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Maine companies from every corner of the state tell us they could benefit from a production, manufacturing and service sector made more vibrant through access to public-private partnerships and financial, intellectual and technical investments needed to remain competitive in national and global markets.

A study released this month by the Maine Technology Institute indicates that Maine not only experienced significant growth in its alternative energy cluster, but is well-positioned to achieve further progress. The new MTI report finds that the “alternative energy and turbines” cluster is one of the fastest growing, with job gains of 11.9 percent from 2007 to 2012. It has higher-than-average wages, is growing faster than other technology sectors, and is positioned to flourish under the right conditions.

The renewable energy sector is quite strong in the state and we rank high in percentage of renewable energy generation as part of our overall energy mix, which helps explain why Maine’s electricity prices are the lowest in the northeast.

The growth of the clean technology sector — in which renewable energy is the backbone — has outpaced the overall Maine economy and a recent survey of cleantech companies reveals that many of these businesses are already expanding and expect positive growth in the future.

These companies are capitalizing on Maine’s natural resource advantages — the wind, the sun, the forest, the waves and tides — to generate electricity and heat for Maine homes and businesses. The money saved is staying both in the state and in residents’ wallets.

For example, there are currently more than 200 wind turbines constructed and under contract in Maine for about 13 projects, and wind farm developers have invested more than $1.5 billion in Maine-based projects to date, including in economically challenged, rural areas of the state. In fact, more than 750 Maine businesses have directly benefited from Maine’s growing wind sector.

Maine is a global leader in tidal energy. Ocean Renewable Power Company, with the first tidal project connected to the grid in the America’s, has already brought more than $25 million into the state economy, and has created or helped retain more than 100 jobs in 14 Maine counties.

The export markets for woody biomass are growing rapidly and Maine companies are installing state-of-the-art wood pellet boilers and stoves throughout New England.

An exemplary company like ReEnergy Holdings owns and operates five Maine biomass plants and has achieved certification that verifies and promotes land stewardship and responsible forestry practices. Their efforts are consistent with Maine’s longstanding history of working our forests, but doing so responsibly and with an eye toward the future.

According to the MTI report, alternative energy jobs have the highest average wages among all tech sectors in Maine — $74,000 compared to Maine’s average private-sector wage of $38,000.

These companies are providing jobs for our kids and those jobs are expected to increase in number. More companies will come to Maine because of the high quality of life and natural resources, providing even more jobs. This expertise can be exported regionally, nationally and globally.

Often thought of as at the end of the “energy pipeline,” Maine has its challenges. But with the right public and private reinforcement and partnerships, Maine can remain a leader in creating alternative energy jobs and attracting funding and private investment.

On Day One of his administration, Maine’s next governor should sit down with the MTI report and start mapping the state’s energy and economic future.

Jeremy Payne is executive director of Maine Renewable Energy Association in Augusta. Jeff Marks is executive director of E2Tech in Portland.

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