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Efficiency Maine's Michael Stoddard On The State's Potential Shift To Electrification

Chuck Burton
AP File
In this July 19, 2019 file photo, a Tesla vehicle charges at a Tesla Supercharger site in Charlotte, N.C.

The threat of climate change is forcing Maine to contemplate a future that relies increasingly on electricity: electricity to heat homes and cool them and to power vehicles. Recently, Efficiency Maine's Executive Director Michael Stoddard talked to legislators about a report that documents the need for that shift.

Stoddard joined Maine Public host Irwin Gratz to talk about this report.

Gratz: Welcome, sir.

Stoddard: Thank you. Good morning.

So let's start with the report that you presented to the legislators. What are some of its major points?

Maine is on the right track when it comes to beneficial electrification. We need to keep that momentum going, and we're even going to need to extend it if we want to try and accomplish two objectives — one is to keep improving the economic benefits of lower energy costs to our economy, and also meet long-range carbon reduction goals.

So what was the initial response you received from the legislators?

There were a lot of questions about electric vehicles and heat pumps and heat pump water heaters. And those are the three opportunities that we identified in the report as having the most immediate impact and opportunity in Maine. And you know, that's new technology.

All right, let's dig into these just a little bit deeper. I mean, I've been in Maine long enough to remember when the idea of heating your home with electric heat was considered the most expensive way to heat a house or an office or a factory, for that matter. So now as we contemplate moving away from oil and other fossil fuels, is that a problem? Or has the technology changed the economics?

You're exactly right. It was taboo once upon a time, not that long ago, to try to heat your home and business with electricity, except in certain circumstances. But as you mentioned, the technology has changed. This new product also works very well, even at very cold temperatures. And, as many folks will know, early generations of heat pumps couldn't do that.

The other major area that was looked at is transportation, the idea of moving towards more electric vehicles. One of the things that has been talked about a lot in recent years when it comes to electric vehicles is the need to create more charging stations to deal with the range-limitations of electric vehicles. The state has invested in some, but one of the things that strikes me is that in the early days of the automobile, of course, the government didn't pay for fueling stations, they just popped up in the private sector. Does the private sector have a role in this?

Oh, absolutely. In fact, I think they have the primary role in this. I would argue that the electric vehicle industry is really in its nascent stages. We're in the very beginnings of that transformation. Eventually they should be the province of the private sector. We have fueling stations that are sprinkled all over the state, and those are privately run, and I expect that the ones that you'll see going forward will be privately run as well.

Maine and other states have been working on something called the Transportation Climate Initiative — in essence, a cap and trade system that's aimed at discouraging the use of gasoline and other fuels, while increasing the funds available for alternatives. New Hampshire's Governor Chris Sununu is against this. He's worried about the likelihood that it will actually raise gasoline and maybe diesel prices. Governor Mills has yet to take a position. Is this one going to be a hard sell, do you think?

Oh, it's always a hard sell. But there aren't a lot of great alternatives. So it's something that needs to be looked at very carefully. Obviously, it would generate some revenues that you could do some good things with — if we use it to pave our roads and fill our potholes, the public may come around to saying that that's something that we need to do more of in this state. And if that could provide a revenue stream for that purpose, so be it.

I'm sure somewhere out there somebody's going to think, 'Okay, when we get done electrifying the heating in our homes and our hot water heaters and our cars, we're going to obviously increase the demand for electricity enormously. Why won't that simply shift the production or use of carbon fuels elsewhere, into the production of all that electricity?'

It will, but it also will do it at a — well all those technologies you just mentioned, tend to do their work more efficiently than the approaches that use combustion of fuel. So that's one reason that they're preferable. The other is that we have lots of different ways to make electricity. So there's a real diversity of opportunity there. And as you know, some of the ways that we're able to make electricity have very, very low carbon footprints. And so as the generation fleet that powers our grid becomes more and more clean and shifts to more and more renewables, the complete equation from start to finish about how we make the power and then how we use it on the other end to heat our homes and to heat our water and drive our cars, that total equation is very low carbon.

Michael Stoddard is the executive director of the Efficiency Maine Trust, and produced the report Beneficial Electrification, Barriers and Opportunities in Maine. Thank you, sir, for your time. We appreciate it.

It was my pleasure. Thanks.

Ed note: interview has been edited for length and clarity.