In the mid to late 2000s, a massive spike in oil prices forced many Americans to come to terms with our addiction to fossil fuels. As wars over Middle Eastern oil wore on and the price of crude shot up from $30 a barrel in 2003 to a record high of $147.30 in July of 2008, a renewed public interest in alternative energy and efficiency arose. Not since the days of the 1970s oil crisis were so many engaged in the debate over the country’s energy future. During that brief window, Maine lawmakers passed several initiatives to help ween the state off of fossil fuels, including investments in home weatherization and efficiency, rebates for solar and wind, expedited wind permitting, the creation of the Ocean Energy Task Force, and a new statewide uniform building efficiency code. Local boards like the Camden Energy Committee also formed to look at new ways of investing in energy efficiency and transitioning to renewables. 

However, as the recession heightened anxieties, oil prices dropped back down and the practice of hydraulic fracking produced a boom in cheap natural gas, a powerful political backlash toward investments in alternative energy gained momentum. 

Following the Tea Party wave election of 2010, the state backtracked on its energy policies by letting renewable power incentives expire, killing a $120 million offshore wind proposal, repealing the new building efficiency standards, and blocking all new initiatives to harness the power of the wind and sun. And locally, in the wake of an organized opposition campaign to a potential wind turbine on Ragged Mountain, Camden’s Energy Committee dissolved in 2011. 

A Reinvigorated Local Environmental Movement

But with a renewed urgency to take action on climate change along with a precipitous drop in the price of solar power, grassroots environmental activists have regrouped  at the local level. Last week, the Camden Select Board voted unanimously to assess the roofs of local municipal buildings for the potential of accommodating solar panels and to re-establish the town’s Energy Committee after four years of inactivity. If successful, the town could begin construction on the solar arrays as early as this fall to take advantage of the federal tax credit set to expire at the end of 2016. 

And with the initiative comes a new vision for the town developed by a group of local students at the Watershed School titled “A Carbon Neutral Camden.”

“We’re asking you to take a second look at the problem because I feel like younger people view the problem very differently than my generation and my parents’ generation and think of it as an opportunity,” Watershed teacher Janet McMahon told the Camden Select Board on July 14. “If you switch from fossil fuels, it’s quieter, it’s cleaner and in the long term it’ll be more economical.”

In a survey of 200 Camden residents, the students reported that 90 percent favor putting solar panels on municipal buildings, 92 percent support increasing light efficiency and 95 percent approve of more investments in building efficiency. The group’s ambitious action plan calls for making every building in Camden carbon neutral through investments in solar arrays, efficiency upgrades, wind power and possibly even hydro-electric. Watershed student Jillian Galloway said that the town’s highest energy user, the Camden Snow Bowl, could offset the one million kilowatt hours it uses by installing three acres of solar panels.

She said that Mount Abram Ski Resort in Greenwood could serve as an example for Camden, having invested in 803 solar panels, which reportedly offsets 70 percent of the ski area’s electricity use. 

The group is also calling for the establishment of an electric vehicle charging station, noting that there are no public EV charging stations on the coast between Brunswick and Bar Harbor. Galloway said that the school system is the second highest energy user, but that it could take a cue from schools in Michigan and California that have begun introducing electric buses. She added that the Danish island of Samsö, which has become 100 percent carbon neutral by making massive investments in renewable energy, could serve as a model, as it has roughly the same number of residents as Camden. She pointed out that the movement on Samsö started with a few community meetings. 

“At first, nobody came. It was maybe one or more people,” said Galloway. “Then more and more people came each time a meeting started. It became a bigger and bigger group that began to lead the effort and eventually the entire island became supportive. That was a success that we can look at because I think we’re very similar.” 

The Watershed students held up Belfast as another example, as that city recently installed a 180-panel solar array atop its fire station, which will produce more than 50,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year. But several other Maine towns are also taking the initiative. 

Currently, Rockland officials are exploring the feasibility of installing ground-mounted solar arrays at the site of the former North School on Broadway, Snow Marine Park, Jaycee Park or over the solid waste landfill. Given the eventual payback for generating free power from the sun, the savings for the city, which will spend about $466,000 on electricity in FY 2016, could be substantial, according to Rockland City Councilor Larry Pritchett. Pritchett estimates that the money spent on electricity is roughly equivalent to the property tax revenue generated by 282 median-priced homes.

Speaking at the Camden Select Board meeting in July, environmental consultant Marina Schauffler said that renewable energy investments could draw more tourists. She pointed to a recent Maine Office of Tourism study which found that two of the three high-priority “consumer segments” that visit Maine “make an effort to live a very green, environmentally friendly lifestyle.”

If Rockland and Camden choose to solarize, they will likely pursue it through a public-private partnership with a solar company in order to take advantage of financial benefits in  the tax code. Because of the way federal renewable energy incentives are structured, the system would need to be owned by a for-profit entity for six years before the municipality would have the option to purchase the solar array at a discount. Under the power-purchase agreement, Camden could potentially pay for the project in 10 to 15 years and get another 25 to 30 years of free sun power, according to ReVision Energy. 

ReVision Energy co-founder Bill Behrens told the Camden Select Board that Camden Hills Regional High School has already taken advantage of the same plan to finance a new solar project which is expected to generate about 200,000 kilowatt hours each year. Behrens called the CHRHS project “one of the best steps toward sustainability” he’s ever seen. He said that while the new solar array will cost about $500,000 — the same price as the school’s wind turbine — it will produce 2.5 times the electricity. Due to the school’s investments in efficiency and renewable energy, CHRHS officials project that the school’s electricity costs will drop to $40,000 a year —  $210,000 less than when it opened in 2000. 

“We believe that the time to invest in solar is now,” said Behrens. “There’s no need to wait for another 10 years of technology to evolve, because the energy that you produce in the waiting period is more valuable than whatever you might achieve if you actually waited. And that wasn’t true 15 years ago, it certainly wasn’t true 10 years ago, but it is true now.”

But recalling the opposition the committee ran into in its former incarnation, former Energy Committee member Peter Kalajian warned the select board that it will need to show leadership in order to meet any energy goals it sets. 

“I think it’s important to be clear that in this town opposition to progress is kind of almost written into the Constitution,” said Kalajian. “So I think it’s important to be aware and for those of us who are interested in this to stiffen our backbones and say, ‘Yep, we’re going to fight for what we think is right.’” 

The Watershed students emphasized that it will also require local leaders to build a strong relationship with the community.

“Communication and education are the two most important skills if we are to become carbon neutral,” said Jillian Galloway. “It’s a community effort with no individual or group left behind.”