Julie Rosenbach, South Portland’s sustainability director, and Troy Moon, Portland’s sustainability director, on Portland’s waterfront in February. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The city will continue to address climate issues in partnership with neighboring Portland under shared municipal energy priorities that the City Council is expected to approve Tuesday.

The proposed priorities include preparing for future legislative authorization that would allow municipalities to phase out natural gas use and require more sustainable and renewable heating options.

Julie Rosenbach, South Portland’s sustainability director, said that authorization isn’t expected to come anytime soon, but it would be necessary to help the municipalities meet ambitious climate action goals.

Both cities have committed to using only renewable energy for municipal operations by 2040 and reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent citywide by 2050.

“By 2050, we want to get off fossil fuels as much as possible,” Rosenbach said. “But if we keep investing in building out the infrastructure for natural gas, it’s going to be more expensive to do the transition later than sooner if we limit the expansion.”

A majority of South Portland councilors indicated strong support for the priorities during a recent workshop. The Portland City Council is expected to consider the priorities in the coming weeks.

Located on opposites sides of Portland Harbor, the two cities have collaborated on various sustainability initiatives in recent years, including the development of solar facilities on closed municipal landfills. Two years ago, they launched a formal effort to fight climate change together.

Their Municipal Energy Priorities 2020 also include increasing data-gathering on energy use in privately owned buildings, and upgrading the Maine Uniform Building and Energy Code so municipalities may require builders to meet higher standards for energy efficiency and sustainability.

The priorities would be sent to legislators, the Maine Climate Council and other groups that are addressing energy and sustainability issues across the state, said City Manager Scott Morelli. Other priorities call for regulatory reform to support beneficial electrification and more funding for energy efficiency and transitioning to clean energy.

The priorities were developed in cooperation with the climate council, where Rosenbach is a member of the Energy Working Group. Rosenbach drafted the priorities with Troy Moon, Portland’s sustainability director, after they conducted community surveys and identified barriers to reaching shared climate goals.

“(The climate council) is looking to municipalities to really take the lead and implement a lot of the actions they want to see for climate change,” Rosenbach said. “They know Portland and South Portland are out in the lead because we are developing our own climate action plan.”

One Climate Future, a comprehensive action plan for both cities, is expected to be completed by Aug. 1 and will be presented to South Portland councilors on Sept. 8, Rosenbach said.

Phasing out natural gas likely would mean halting the extension of underground delivery lines to new housing developments and preventing new hookups to existing lines, Rosenbach said.

Councilors wouldn’t be committing to those strategies by approving the municipal energy priorities, she said, but they would be giving her office permission to pursue policies that might allow them to consider taking action in the future.

Rosenbach said natural gas has long been viewed as a cleaner but transitional fossil fuel, and that even energy companies are preparing for an expected transition to more sustainable resources for heating and transportation, especially through increased electrification.

Representing what some say is the greenest city in Maine, the South Portland councilors indicated broad support for the priorities. However, they expressed concern for taking any steps that might result in higher fuel or housing costs for residents.

“My concern is we could lock people into what could be the most expensive form of heating,” said Councilor Claude Morgan. He also noted that many people prefer cooking with gas and are actively trying to gain access to local supply lines.

Councilor April Caricchio called the municipal energy priorities “brilliant” and joined Councilor Susan Henderson in urging Rosenbach to also prioritize support for transitioning to a consumer-owned utility. However, Portland officials have indicated they don’t want to expressly advocate for that transition, Rosenbach said.

So Rosenbach has drafted a separate letter that would be sent to legislators expressing the South Portland council’s support for L.D. 1646, sponsored by Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, which would “restore local ownership and control of Maine’s power delivery systems.”

“Any way that we can move toward better energy efficiency in the city and sustainability, I’m completely behind,” said Councilor Kate Bruzgo.


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