Over the past decade, nationwide calls for environmental reform have dominated the media. The most significant of these may be the fight for renewable energy, the shining knight that could unseat fossil fuels. The state of Maine is an active agent in this fight, setting many goals for a carbonless future. However, do the forecasts stack up to the hype? Maine’s current clean energy projects have attracted some of the most innovative minds in the nation, particularly young people who have grown up amid the climate crisis. A greener future for Maine will have to use recent energy investments to change the way power is made.
In 2019, shortly after Governor Janet Mills was sworn into office, her administration set new targets for clean energy usage. These outlined renewable power levels to be at 80 percent of the grid by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050. For multiple reasons, Maine is the perfect state for an environmental case study. Maine is the least densely populated state east of the Mississippi, and the most forested state in the union. It has a large and plentiful array of undeveloped land with expansive river networks. Coupled with very generous tax and regulatory benefits, there are few state governments that make it easier to develop clean energy than Maine’s.
Currently, 72 percent of the state’s electricity is generated from renewable sources. This is down from 79 percent in 2020 due to a seven percent rise in natural gas usage. Despite this, Maine still ranks fifth in renewable grid proportion. If hydropower is omitted from consideration, Maine is ranked first. The profile of this 72 percent can be categorized into four sectors: hydrofuel, biomass, wind, and solar.
Hydrofuel makes up a large chunk of Maine’s renewables, at around 30 percent of the total grid saturation. It produces the second largest amount of water-powered energy in the region, second to Vermont, and is sixteenth nationally. The shift to hydrofuel began in the 1980s, with conversions of Maine’s expansive network of over 800 dams. Due to environmental efforts, many of these dams were modified or destroyed; this was done in an effort to restore native waterways and heighten the efficiency of larger plants. Today, Maine has 51 operational hydroelectric facilities, generating 726 megawatts (MW) of power. Untapped water potential includes the existence of tidal power plants, with the nation’s first being opened in 2014 in Maine’s Cobscook Bay.
Wind energy has grown significantly in recent years within the state. Maine has the highest levels of wind generation in New England, accounting for two-thirds of the region’s production. The state has a capacity of over 1,000 MW of wind energy, most of which comes from plants on its borders. The largest of these is a 186 MW wind farm operated by Bingham Wind. Future goals include a plan to reach 8,000 MW by 2030, although it should be noted that the previous landmark of 5,000 by 2020 was not met.
Biomass fuel also represents a significant share of green power, ⅕ of the overall grid. Once again, this proportion is second only to Vermont in the region. Biomass fuel can be defined as the burning of natural materials. While this method is often more invasive than other forms of renewables, it is still a valuable method of power generation. Seeing as Maine is 90 percent forested, the vast majority of its biomass production is done by wood or wood waste. In addition to this, biomass can also be used to create alternatives to gasoline or petroleum. The state is able to produce up to a million gallons of biodiesel every year. These figures are especially pertinent considering one in ten households in Maine is powered by wood.
Despite making up only 7 percent of Maine’s current grid, in the past several years, solar investments have skyrocketed by over 300 percent, and installation costs have been halved. There are currently 21 utility-scale solar farms in the state, with the largest generating 20, 49, and 77 MW of power. However, these numbers are certain to grow, with evidence being new projects by companies such as Dirigo Solar. Dirigo is in the process of installing over 200 MW across 36 projects in the coming years.
While nearly three-quarters of Maine’s power can currently be classified as ‘green,’ there are faults within its system. Today, 70 percent of households still use petroleum for home heating. Though there are no coal mines or gas refineries, the state still operates a petroleum pipeline out of Portland. A quarter of Maine’s energy, and a majority of its transportation fuel, is still dependent on the use of fossil fuels.
On the national stage, the fight for renewable energy may seem like a small drop in a large puddle. Despite this, the state of Maine has made some of the best advancements in energy grid transformation and is currently a leader in the global power shift. Within the borders of the Pine Tree State, it seems as if the results do in fact live up to expectations, at least for now. Though improvements are constantly in motion, the triumvirate of private investment, legal guidance, and social awareness can launch Maine to a carbon-neutral future and lead the way for the rest of the country.
~ Wyatt Tune `26