Part I

Energy: Timber, coal, oil and wind

A quick and (mostly) dirty history of New England's energy supplies
By Philp Conkling | Jan 12, 2012

Governor Paul LePage has pointed out, quite correctly, that Maine is the most oil-dependent state in the country for winter heat. Hawaii is actually more fossil fuel dependent than Maine, as it imports virtually all of its energy, but Hawaiians have situated themselves more providentially in a warmer latitude than ours and consequently need less heat in the winter.

The governor has also said he believes Maine’s dismal ranking at the absolute bottom of Forbes list of business-friendly states results in significant measure from the high cost of our energy, especially our electricity. Finally the governor is desperately trying to find new sources of revenue, including from energy efficiency funds, to fill the hole in the state’s severely diminished Low Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which keeps our most needy elderly and impoverished citizens from freezing to death. Given all these factors, it may be useful to spend some time looking into the mirror of our energy needs during the next few weeks of January.

If we begin with a quick and dirty history of the sources of our energy over the past three centuries, it is instructive to note that the first energy crisis in Boston began in the late 18th Century when local supplies of firewood that could be readily hauled to the city by wagon had been exhausted. Entrepreneurial Maine islanders responded to the market opportunity and were soon hauling deck-loads of firewood on their schooners and sailing their cargo “up” to Boston to sell as the cold set in. It is extraordinary to think that it was more economical to transport 15 or 30 cords of wood from a Maine island 200 miles upwind to Boston than to bring a similar amount of wood from beyond 20 miles of the city’s periphery. It gives you an idea of how poor the road networks were and how few bridges had been built into the hinterlands. But Maine was a net exporter of energy during this period.

Beginning in the 1880s, the energy from timber was replaced by coal that came to Maine and New England as an industrial and residential fuel after railroads linked the coalfields of West Virginia and Appalachia with the seaport at Newport News on the Virginia coast and made coal exports economically feasible. This new source of energy also brought wrenching economic changes. Steamships that burned coal transformed ocean transportation, driving even the fastest clipper ships into an early grave and idling wooden shipyards that had employed tens of thousands of skilled workers throughout New England, including in Camden, Rockport, Rockland and Thomaston.

Ironically, though, there was a reprieve for a few shipyards after their owners discovered that the cheapest way to transport the huge volumes of coal needed to supply textile mills and hundreds of other manufacturing enterprises throughout the country was on specially designed beamy “Downeasters.”

Four-, five-, six- and ultimately seven-masted coal schooners were launched from Maine boatyards, most notably from Holly Bean’s Yard in Camden, for almost 30 years before even these last wooden sailing ships became obsolete at the end of World War I when the price of coal dropped precipitously. Although Maine became a net importer of energy beginning with the coal energy era, we were able to harness our wind resources to connect our economy to the world.

New England’s coal era ended after World War II when we began heating our homes with oil. Most coal dealers became oil dealers. The switch to this new source of energy was expensive to those who had to replace central heating systems with new oil fired boilers, but oil was plentiful and cheaper and cleaner than coal. Congress passed the Interstate Highway Act during the Eisenhower administration to build roads that greatly increased commerce and tourism, while Detroit cranked out ever larger cars devouring ever greater amounts of gas and oil – as the American century really cranked up! It was probably the least difficult energy transition the country has ever made, unless you were in the electric car and bus business, in which case you were wiped out. We hardly seemed to notice that we subsidized our oil and gas transition by funding public highways, provided oil companies with drilling incentives, leased drilling rights on public lands at low prices and extended generous oil depletion allowances to reduce energy company taxes.

Perhaps our national experience during the past half-century has led us to expect that developing newer sources of energy would be a similarly painless process. But lately we have had to confront some of the hidden costs of our energy choices. The explosion on Deepwater Horizon rig and resulting oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico brought the true costs of offshore oil drilling into focus. Continued dependence on oil from an increasingly unstable Middle East, especially when a country like Iran threatens to close off the Persian Gulf, makes us vulnerable to unpredictable spikes in price.

Depending on more energy from nuclear power plants has undoubtedly been dealt a major blow, at least temporarily, by the one-two punch of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami that has crippled multiple nuclear reactors and threatened a vast area with a radioactive disaster. Natural gas development in the tight shale deposits under vast sections of this country is increasingly plagued with public fears about contamination of drinking water from “hydro-fracking” techniques. Meanwhile the effort to harness the region’s winds as a component of the region’s energy budget – onshore and off – has been hampered by viewshed and noise concerns from those living on the shores of Cape Cod, as well as other activists throughout Maine who want to protect the existing character of Maine’s ridgelines and mountains.

Here in New England, especially, we celebrate our traditions of rugged individualism, but protecting our individual needs and desires without any sense of what we require collectively is a recipe, if not for disaster, at least for paralysis, as our energy policies are held hostage by conflicting local interests over whether to develop coal, nuclear, oil, natural gas or wind resources. Coal risks climate change; nuclear risks meltdowns; oil risk geopolitical instability; natural gas risks ground water pollution; wind risks viewshed and noise intrusions. Soon we are going to have to make some real choices.

To help weigh some of the risks, I thought I would devote the next several columns to exploring Maine’s energy future. Next week, we will start with where our energy comes from and look at the governor’s bet on natural gas in light of the hyrdro-fracking debate.

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