Credit: George Danby

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Jack Shapiro is the Climate & Clean Energy director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Mainers got a good preview of the possibilities for a clean energy future in the first “non wires alternative” project approved by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) earlier this month. This new common-sense approach being implemented in Brunswick and Topsham replaces capital-intensive poles and wires with a combination of battery storage, energy efficiency, and more cost-effective reliability upgrades. The result is $8.5 million in savings for ratepayers like you and me.

But what’s even more encouraging is what this relatively small project means for how we might build the reliable, low-cost, clean energy grid we need to meet our climate goals across the entire state, potentially saving Maine people hundreds of millions of dollars in the decades to come.

A central strategy built into Maine’s Climate Action Plan, “Maine Won’t Wait,” is replacing polluting fossil fuels with cleaner electricity to heat our homes and power our cars and trucks. Doing so, while sourcing that electricity from local renewable sources like wind and solar, is our pathway to hit the climate goals set by bipartisan majorities in the Legislature, and the clearest route to helping avoid the most dangerous tipping points from escalating climate changes.

Shifting away from oil and gas also comes with major health and cost benefits. The byproducts of burning fossil fuels are linked to numerous health problems, especially in neighborhoods flanking busy roads, and now new research is uncovering toxic air pollution in our homes from gas stoves. High-efficiency electric heat pumps are already lowering heating bills for tens of thousands of Maine families. And electric vehicles come with lower monthly costs for drivers, even before gas prices went through the roof.

Powering those new heat pumps, stoves, and vehicles with renewable energy also helps keep energy costs low across the entire economy. Clean energy, especially solar, is some of the lowest-cost energy coming onto the grid in recent years. Moreover, renewable energy comes with no fuel costs, freeing us from the fossil fuel price volatility that’s causing the energy price spikes we’re all experiencing now on our electric bills and at the pump.

To be sure, there are challenges. One of the biggest is that right now we don’t have the electric grid we need to bring these advantages and benefits to everyone across our state.

The reliability currently delivered by our utilities is unacceptable – among the worst in the country. And a report this month from ISO New England, the regional grid operator, anticipates that we will need to double the electric grid’s capacity over the next two decades to incorporate low-cost renewable energy and a significant expansion of electric transportation and heating.

Thankfully, the path to a reliable, low-cost grid is a lot clearer today than it was a few months ago, thanks to the hard work of the Office of the Public Advocate, Efficiency Maine, and a new law passed by the Legislature earlier this year.

LD 1959, “An Act Regarding Utility Accountability and Grid Planning for Maine’s Clean Energy Future” directly ties grid planning to our detailed statewide climate action plan, incorporates evaluations of environmental justice and equity, requires broad input from Maine people, and data transparency. The PUC will formally launch this new process in November.

Maine has a golden opportunity to lead the nation in transforming our energy system. If we do it poorly, the $8.5 million saved in Brunswick-Topsham will represent the road not taken, with our underperforming utilities continuing to put their profits and the interests of their shareholders first. But if we are successful, Maine can build an energy system without dangerous carbon emissions. We can incorporate renewable and distributed energy sources that create and sustain good jobs here in our communities. And we can develop a grid that’s reliable, and is built at the lowest-cost possible, with the needs of Maine families and businesses at its center.