A front-page story tells us that the nonprofit organization that owns The Center building in downtown Waterville (formerly the Sterns department store) plans to use natural gas to heat the building instead of fuel oil as has been done in the past.

Presumably the changeover will result in saving money in the long run because natural gas will cost less than fuel oil. The story, however, mentions that the cost of natural gas may increase as time goes by, so there is some risk to this choice. For example, if state or federal authorities adopt regulations that require that the “fracking” process for obtaining natural gas not pollute the nearby groundwater, the cost of “fracking” will increase substantially.

But looking at the choice another way, most of us know that we need to stop burning so much fossil fuel, and natural gas is a fossil fuel. Where does our energy come from anyway? When you think about it, all of our energy comes from the sun. The energy in fossil fuel came from the sun.

When all of the fossil fuel has been used up, we will need to get our energy from the sun. Why not do it now? It will probably cost less right now, and would put much less carbon pollution into the air. We would be better off to use solar energy to heat our buildings right now, instead of first investing a lot of money in a natural gas heating system for a few years, then paying additional money to build a solar energy heating system.

Gov. Paul LePage recently decided to use heat pumps to heat the Blaine House in Augusta, where the governor lives. Heat pumps can be used both for heating and air conditioning. The Good-Will Hinckley School in Fairfield is the process of renovating a 100-year-old building that will be heated and air-conditioned with heat pumps. Solar panels will be their primary source of electricity. The building, which will be used for classrooms, also will be provided with much better insulation than it has ever had.

Heat pumps use electricity, but we can obtain the electricity from solar panels mounted on the rooftops of buildings or on the ground. The only cost is to install them. The energy itself costs nothing.

True, this works only when the sun is shining, but there is a solution to that problem, as well. The system can make more electricity than the building needs when the sun is shining and then send the extra into the electrical distribution system. The building can draw electricity from the electrical distribution system when the sun is not shining. The source of this energy could be wind or hydroelectric. As long as you put as much electricity into the distribution system as you take out, the electricity doesn’t cost you anything.

Fairly quickly, your savings pay for the cost of installing the system, just as when you use natural gas, possibly in less time. An analysis could be done to see which would save the most money, but it is highly likely that the cost of natural gas will increase more over time than the cost of using heat pumps and solar electricity.

When you use heat pumps, it is a good idea to have a backup system because it might not work well enough on very cold days. This backup might be your existing heating system, such as fuel oil, or it could be something else. It would be good to get the advice of a professional installer before making a decision about what is best to do.

Elery Keene of Winslow spent 31 years as executive director of the Kennebec Valley Council of Governments. He is a member of the board of directors of the Sustain Mid Maine Coalition, a grassroots organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for the people of central Maine.


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