SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree lauded the opening of Southern Maine Community College’s new Sustainability and Energy Alternatives Center Thursday as a step in the right direction for a state that she said must break its dependence on oil.

The building, established in a retrofitted structure the school had largely been using for storage, is the centerpiece of a slate of new programs and initiatives at the community college seeking to train students for jobs in energy efficiency and renewable energy industries.

Included in what SMCC officials are calling their “SEA Center” is a “pressure house” — a reduced-scale home with appliances and vents created to simulate air flow and pressure conditions in a real-world environment.

The pressure house is “one of the first in the country,” said community college President Ronald Cantor, who described the opening of the center as “a milestone in the history of Maine’s community college system.”

Pingree said the school’s new center and associated programs are examples of what the federal government should be investing more in instead of debating whether to pursue increased oil drilling off American shores.

The 1st District Democrat said talk of turning to domestic oil to solve the country’s — or Maine’s — energy problems seems like a “retro debate we thought we got over in the 1970s or ’80s.”

“We are the most oil-dependent state in the nation with some of the oldest housing stock and the oldest population. We’re 38th in per-capita income,” she said. “This is a perfect storm of bad [conditions]. Changing that [reliance on oil] in our state is absolutely critical.”

Alternative energy “is our economic future,” Pingree continued. “Without it, we’re in terrible shape.”

The new center was made possible by a $375,000 grant by Efficiency Maine and the donation of equipment and the pressure house by MaineHousing.

John Brautigam, director of the SEA Center, said photovoltaic solar panels braced on the southern side of the building have generated 110 kilowatt-hours in the month of September, and when he’s teaching a class in the structure on a sunny day, the center is essentially energy neutral.

In addition to celebrating the opening of the center, Cantor also announced four additional steps he and the school pledged to take in pursuit of greater energy efficiency. He announced plans to sign the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, an effort pushed by top higher education officials to eliminate net greenhouse gas emissions from certain school operations, among other things.

Cantor named Oct. 26, 2011, Sustainability Day across SMCC, during which the school will recognize and promote new initiatives to reduce waste and energy consumption. He also announced several new scholarships to be set aside for students looking to study sustainability or energy efficiency. Finally, Cantor said 10 parking spaces at the densely populated South Portland campus will be reserved for carpool use or hybrid cars only.

Thursday’s announcements came after this fall’s launch of a new Building Science and Sustainability certificate program, which builds off a slate of recently introduced classes on home weatherization and green building design.

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.