When you think about the Green New Deal, think Maine and think money.

There has been a strong environmental movement in this state for over half a century, but environmentalism is no longer the sole province of small groups of enthusiasts and idealists like the Audubon Society, Sierra Club or Sportsman’s Alliance. Creating a sustainable environment is becoming a vibrant business.

When billionaires like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos actively scour the country for environmental startups to invest in, it’s increasingly evident that green now signifies cash, not just chlorophyll. The convergence of a catastrophic problem — climate change — and new government policies and technologies to meet that challenge have created a serendipitous moment when private investors and entrepreneurs can do well by doing good.

Ventures in Maine are already pursuing alternative ways of generating energy, growing food, and utilizing wood products. The state’s plentiful supply of unbuilt land, water and timber, combined with venture capital, public policy and innovation, are sprouting the shoots of a green economy here.

The key to combating climate change is to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. That can be done by either releasing less CO2 into the air or pulling more out of it. The latter is known as carbon recapture.

Renewable energies lessen the need for fossil fuels like petroleum and coal, which are major contributors to CO2. Recycling reduces the amount of energy expended in converting raw materials into usable products, not to mention the volume of non-biodegradable waste polluting the earth and water.

Carbon recapture is a tougher problem, though nature has already provided a highly effective mechanism in photosynthesis. Trees and other vegetation use the sun’s energy to split off carbon atoms from CO2 to create sugars, starches and cellulose which are then incorporated into leaves, stems, roots and wood fibers. (Scientists are also working on genetic engineering methods to improve the efficiency of various plants in removing CO2 from the air and storing it in the soil).

Like bubbles on the surface of a pot of boiling water, news items about Maine’s burgeoning green economy have started appearing with increasing regularity

In March, Nautilis Solar Energy LLC, a New Jersey company, announced it was investing $100 million in 11 Maine community solar farms (one of them adjacent to the Oxford Plains Speedway in Oxford) that would generate 54 megawatts, enough to meet the power demand of about 13,000 homes. The same month the Lewiston Planning Board approved a New York developer’s application for a conditional-use permit to build a 20-megawatt, 101-acre solar array off Sabattus Street.

Maine’s solar explosion is partly the result of improved technology which has greatly lessened the cost and improved the efficiency of solar panels over the past decade. But it’s also the product of net energy billing, a state program, expanded in 2019, which incentivizes solar. Net billing provides the operator a credit, part of which is passed onto its customers, for the excess renewable energy it produces and sends to the grid.

Wind power is already a big business in Maine, generating over 900 megawatts, but it’s starting to move from land to sea. The Mills administration is working on a proposal to obtain federal regulatory permission to lease 16 square miles of ocean between and 20 and 40 miles off the Maine coast for a 12-turbine offshore wind project that would link to the electricity grid in Yarmouth or Wiscasset.

Last Sunday’s Sun Journal featured an article about Springworks, an aquaponics business in Lisbon founded by a 26-year-old Bowdoin College grad. It’s the largest such operation in New England, growing a million head of lettuce a year and simultaneously raising nearly 50,000 tilapia fish in a closed system of circulating water.

Aquaponics is a form of sustainable agriculture that uses fewer resources (land, water and fertilizer) to yield more produce and create less waste. At Springworks, lettuce is grown floating in water tanks, rather than embedded in soil, with nutrients supplied by waste pumped in from fish swimming in other tanks. The lettuce utilizes these nutrients to grow while simultaneously purifying the water, which is then recycled. The operation, carried on in greenhouses, yields 20 times more produce per area than a traditional farming operation, uses 90% less water and allows a year-round growing season.

At the University of Maine’s Forest Bioproducts Institute, academic researchers are working with industry to create sustainable forest bio-products in fuels, chemicals and advanced materials. According to the Institute’s website, its research projects include the compression of small pieces of wood and glue into large composite wood elements for building construction, the creation of plastic-like cellulose products which degrade upon long exposure to water and which could replace single-use plastics, and the conversion of woody biomass into liquid fuels and chemicals.

Gone are the days when environmentalists were derided by the business community as “tree huggers.” Now it’s the business community that is hugging trees — if not out of veneration of nature than for the pursuit of profit.

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 10 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at [email protected]


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