LEWISTON – The governor’s task force on energy is projecting that Mainers will pay $7 billion for petroleum products next year. Presenters at a conference at Bates College on Wednesday laid out a plan for lessening that pain.

The key: Finding appropriate technologies to reduce energy costs and finding a way to pay for them.

“It took $4 a gallon to get it going,” said Clif Greim of Harriman Associates, a leader in green architecture and building systems. “Now we have to keep it going.”

Greim ticked off options that are viable and affordable, with paybacks shrinking as energy costs rise. He cited a new Bowdoin College dorm that installed a geothermal system, expecting to save $150,000 a year, which actually saved $82,000. The payback for the system shrunk from 9.6 years to 6.2 years.

Other alternative energy sources- fuel cells, solar, biomass, wind and others – are available to reduce operating costs for all sorts of business. Greim said Whole Foods, one of Harriman’s customers, expects to reduce its energy costs between 40 to 50 percent by combining systems applications.

The conference, dubbed “Surviving the Energy Crisis: How to Save Money,” was initiated by the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce in response to members’ fears about rising energy costs, President Chip Morrison said. Many business owners know there are ways to make their facilities tighter and energy efficient, but don’t know the fixes or how to finance those improvements.

“Information is available; it simply hasn’t been accessed,” said Tim Vrabel, of the Public Utilities Commission. He urged the 60 or so attendees to take advantage of the energy auditors from Efficiency Maine who offered free consultations at the conference.

Representatives from Coastal Enterprises Inc. and the Finance Authority of Maine assured attendees that there are low-cost programs to help. CEI, which acts like a nonprofit bank to finance community development, offers several programs. The financing is tied to the idea that a project or business enhances the local economy, holds broad-based equity and benefits the environment. Among them:

• A micro-loan program for businesses needing loans under $50,000 and a small business fund for $50,000-$300,000 loans, offered with the Small Business Administration. CEI’s Mike Finnegan said the popular program has loaned $33 million over the past 15 years.

• New Market program for loans of $500,000 or more, and tax credits, which allows banks to lower their interest rates on approved projects by .5 percent to 2 percent. It also has a seven-year, interest-only program, to allow a “long horizon for the stabilization of a project,” Finnegan said.

FAME offers:

• Energy conservation loans for workplace efficiency projects of up to $250,000 at 3 percent interest, offered with the PUC.

• Economic recovery loans provide gap financing for energy projects to allow a businesses to stay competitive. No cap on the size of the loan. Through March 2009, the interest rate matches prime, which on Wednesday was 4.5 percent.

Efficiency Maine also has a pool of money, replenished from a surcharge on electricity rates. It offers to reimburse companies for energy improvements up to $200,000 over a two-year period.

Laurie Lachance, the keynote speaker and director of the Maine Development Foundation, said the difficulties faced by the business community and its energy costs can be overcome with resolve between the public and private sectors and some broad thinking. She said technological advances in wood composites and off-shore wind positions Maine to solve not only its own energy crisis, but others’.

“We have to stop thinking small and day-to-day,” she said. “If we do this correctly, we can be a national or world leader in these new forms of energy.”

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