Jonathan Morrell stands in the attic of his house, which was built in 1806 and moved to its current location in 1826. Morrell and his wife, Trudy, had their house in Bridgton insulated in the basement and attic, and installed three heat pumps. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Record home energy prices this year have laid bare Maine’s ongoing vulnerability and dependence on fossil fuels to stay warm and move around.

No one knows exactly how Russia’s war in Ukraine and other factors will affect global energy markets in the months ahead. But an urgent question is looming today in many Maine households shocked by the surge in heating fuel, electricity and gasoline prices: What cost-effective things can I do between now and next winter to reduce my dependence on energy sources subject to price volatility?

State energy-efficiency program administrator Efficiency Maine has three high-priority answers: Insulate and air-seal your home, install high-efficiency heat pumps to supplement or replace oil and propane systems, and drive an electric or plug-in hybrid vehicle. But those looking to implement any of the recommended steps could face a long delay.

The quasi-government agency is trying to accelerate the pace at which Mainers make these transitions. It’s offering more incentives, such as income-dependent rebates of up to $9,600 for insulation work. Perhaps an even stronger incentive for some is the high price of heating oil, which averaged $5 a gallon statewide last week, and gasoline, which has averaged above $4 a gallon in Maine for several weeks.

Efficiency Maine’s recommendations dovetail with some of the state’s climate change action goals in the coming years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The state wants the number of weatherized homes it supports through rebates to roughly double annually, bringing them from 1,800 to 3,500 this year. It wants to install at least 100,000 additional heat pumps, up from 88,000 today, and put 41,000 EVs and plug-in hybrids on the road, up from fewer than 6,000 now.

But many Mainers will be hard-pressed to take such steps this year. Demand for such products and services is so high that one common piece of advice has emerged for any household planning to make energy upgrades in 2022: Don’t wait.

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LABOR AND SUPPLY ISSUES

Insulation contractors in Maine are struggling to find the crews needed to keep up with customer demand.

“We’ve got a list five pages long of (customers) to call back this year,” said Tom Atwood, owner of Northern Energy Services in Lisbon. “If someone called in March, I can probably get to them in late fall.”

Heat pump installers also are searching for new workers, with offers to train them for jobs that can pay an experienced pro $40 an hour.

“We try to do 50 homes a week,” said Matt Scott, co-owner of Dave’s World in Windham, one of the state’s top installers. “That’s our capacity now.”

Demand also is high for the country’s growing selection of new electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. But global supply chain issues have triggered waiting lists for some popular new models. Some dealers are asking thousands of dollars over the sticker price for them, prompting some automakers to threaten to reduce future shipments to those dealers.

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Jonathan Morrell stands in front of two heat pump compressors outside his house, which was built in 1806 and moved to its current location in Bridgton 1826. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Trying to track down a used plug-in or hybrid vehicle isn’t any easier. The state’s first dealership that sells only used electric and hybrid vehicles also has a waiting list.

“Demand is at record levels for electric cars,” said Tony Giambro, owner of Paris Autobarn in South Paris. “We have a hard time keeping them in stock.”

There’s also great interest in renewable energy alternatives such as solar-electric panels. But this sought-after option, too, is constrained by not enough workers to perform installations.

“For people who get in touch with us today, we are scheduling home solar consultations into August,” said Phil Coupe, co-founder of the state’s largest rooftop solar installer, ReVision Energy. “And it is possible we will close out our 2022 installation capacity by June.”

A typical 8-kilowatt solar array tied to the electric grid costs $19,000 or so, Coupe said, after an available 26 percent federal tax credit. The investment could pay for itself in less than 10 years. Adding battery storage – a growing trend – starts at around $15,000. Despite the upfront costs, ReVision is experiencing unprecedented demand for both, as well as for heat pumps.

FOSSIL FUEL DEPENDENCY

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Nearly a half-century has passed since the Middle East oil embargo forced Mainers to face the consequences of America’s reliance on petroleum. But according to the Maine Climate Council, six in 10 Maine households still use oil as their primary heat source, the largest share in the country.

Many of those homes are hemorrhaging heat. Between half and two-thirds of the state’s 550,000 homes were built before 1960, long before modern energy-efficiency standards were established.

Maine is a rural state, and residents are especially dependent on cars and trucks for transportation. The average Maine vehicle travels 12,000 miles a year, with 65 percent of those miles driven on rural roads. Transportation also is responsible for more than half the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, a prime motivator behind the push to get people out of gasoline-powered cars and trucks. In southern Maine, there’s also a regional effort to expand mass transit.

In the long run, state officials envision an electric grid powered by renewable energy sources. Even now, an impressive 75 percent of the electricity generated in Maine comes from renewable sources, notably hydropower, biomass and wind.

But Maine is part of a regional electric grid, and much of its power is exported. In New England’s competitive electricity supply market, rates are tied to the wholesale cost of natural gas because gas fuels half the region’s generating capacity. And since gas is a global commodity that’s shipped overseas, world events have sent prices soaring.

High prices have triggered a range of responses from state lawmakers, everything from gas tax holiday proposals to relief checks and electric bill credits. But this kind of assistance is limited and transitory. Finding enduring solutions to finally break Maine’s dependence on fossil fuels hinges on thousands of private, personal decisions about how and when to weatherize homes, switch out heating systems and get from one place to another.

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Jonathan and Trudy Morrell had their house in Bridgton insulated in the basement and attic, and installed three heat pumps, including this one in their bedroom. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

THIS OLD, DRAFTY HOUSE

Jonathan and Trudie Morrell faced some of those decisions four years ago, after they bought an 1806 cape-style house in Bridgton. Like so many of Maine’s vintage homes, this one was an energy nightmare. An expensive-to-run electric heater in a basement area was needed all winter just to keep the pipes from freezing.

That changed after an insulation crew air-sealed all the cracks in the basement and attic, and, among other measures, blew 16 inches of cellulose in the cap.

“They spent a huge effort sealing cracks – it took days,” Jonathan Morrell said. “In an 1806 house, there were a lot of cracks and drafts. We have no drafts anymore.”

The work cost around $12,000 after rebates and the couple financed $10,000 with a 1.9 percent interest loan from Efficiency Maine.

The Morrells also replaced electric baseboard heaters with ductless heat pumps. One warms the kitchen and great room; a larger unit handles three other areas. In the summer, they provide low-cost air conditioning.

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The couple kept an old Monitor kerosene heater installed to take the edge off the coldest nights. It ran eight times last winter.

“We find the heat pumps do the job even when it’s quite a bit below zero,” Morrell said.

But last January was the coldest since 2014, and it tested many Maine heating systems. Morrell counted seven nights at minus 20 degrees. So he wasn’t surprised when January’s electric bill hit $430. It was an outlier, he said, for bills that typically are fairly stable and within the couple’s budget.

‘THERE AREN’T MANY OF US’

Similar energy-efficiency improvements will need to kick into overdrive all across the state to buffer households from the sort of sticker shock witnessed this winter.

“The challenge with weatherization is that it’s hard to scale up quickly,” said Michael Stoddard, Efficiency Maine’s executive director. “We don’t have the marketplace to deliver all that.”

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The coronavirus pandemic hit the weatherization workforce hard. People didn’t want strangers in their homes. Workers left the industry as calls for weatherization fell off.

The pace of insulating has been improving in recent months, Stoddard said. But the head of a leading company says the industry is still struggling to staff up and is having trouble finding and training workers willing to crawl into basements and attics for $20 to $25 an hour.

Roughly 15 companies with a total of 60 or so employees are performing 80 percent of the weatherization work in the state, according to an estimate from Richard Burbank, founder of Evergreen Home Performance in Portland.

“That’s the headline,” Burbank said. “There aren’t many of us.”

In the attic of a home in Woolwich on April 1, John Mickles applies spray foam to the base of a box used as an air gap around a chimney so insulation he will put in the attic later doesn’t touch the chimney. Mickles works for Northern Energy Services, of Lisbon. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Evergreen, which insulated the Morrells’ home, now has a record 30 employees. An optimal weatherization team has a truck and four people, including the crew leader.

“All we need is 40 to 60 people to double the pace in the whole state,” Burbank said. “That’s how bad off we are right now.”

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Bridging the weatherization gap is essential, experts say, because tightening up should be the first step in improving household energy-efficiency. It doesn’t make financial sense, they say, to change heating systems in a drafty, poorly insulated house.

“I turn down clients who call me for heat pumps if they can’t keep the heat in the structure,” said Atwood, of Lisbon-based Northern Energy Services. “You have to keep the heat in before you get another heat source.”

Government estimates vary, but between 20 and 40 percent of a home’s energy bill can be wasted through air leakage and inadequate insulation. A basic, $850 air-sealing job – which can drop to $350 after a $500 Efficiency Maine rebate – would pay back its investment in two years.

A $5,600 insulation job that saves $479 a year would pay for itself in six years after rebates, according to Efficiency Maine. More generous rebates for low- and moderate-income residents could slash the payback time to 16 months.

HEAT PUMP USE RISING

Once a home is weatherized, high-efficiency heat pumps can supplement or replace more costly heating systems. Next to wood and pellet stoves and geothermal heat pumps, air-source “mini-split” heat pumps are the least expensive way to warm a building, according to Efficiency Maine’s online heat source calculator.

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Many Mainers are embracing heat pumps. Installations doubled from 12,758 in 2020 to 27,326 last year. Four out of 10 new homes have at least one heat pump, Efficiency Maine has found.

“It’s a hopeful sign,” Stoddard said. “We’re in a significant transformation to a new way of heating our homes and businesses.”

This transformation isn’t without controversy. Last December, New England heating oil dealers warned the region’s governors that the move to heat pumps could leave residents vulnerable to electricity price spikes and no heat during potential winter blackouts. They suggested that states instead encourage the industry’s evolving conversion to renewable liquid biofuels.

The industry, including the Maine Energy Marketers Association, also questions whether heat pumps can do the job in extreme cold. Efficiency Maine has sought to counter this criticism.

Jonathan Morrell looks at the insulation in the basement of his Bridgton home, where he installed a highly efficient heater to heat the space. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Heat pumps work by extracting warmth from the air, not by generating it. Today’s high-efficiency models work well even in below-zero temperatures, according to Efficiency Maine’s evaluations. They should be set and left on throughout the heating season, rather than turned up and down.

“It’s going to be a lengthy learning curve to get everyone in Maine familiar with how they work and how they work well,” Stoddard said.

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But labor and equipment shortages are the biggest obstacles now.

Dave’s World has 72 people installing heat pumps after hiring 27 last year. It still needs more workers. The company was busy throughout the winter, which is typically a slow time.

Customers who call by June can likely schedule an installation in around three weeks, according to Scott. But wait until August and it could be two months.

Dave’s World has shops in Dover-Foxcroft, Ellsworth, Windham and Scarborough, and is planning two more. Volume gives the company buying power, but supply problems have cost it some business.

“We probably missed out on 100 or so jobs because of (limited) inventory,” Scott said.

WOOD HEATING AN OPTION

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The rush to install heat pumps sometimes obscures the potential for wood heat. Maine is 90 percent wooded. One in 10 homes is heated primarily with wood, according to federal figures, ranking Maine only behind Vermont. The state also has four pellet manufacturing plants that help support the state’s forest economy.

Modern wood heat has multiple appeals now. It’s among the cheapest forms of heat. Stoves manufactured since 2020 are designed to produce lower emissions, and a recent federal tax credit can cut the price of an Environmental Protection Agency-certified stove or central heating system by 26 percent this year and 22 percent next year.

“We’ve been very busy all year and last fall,” said Gary Asselin, owner of Fireside Stove Shop in Auburn.

Sizes, installation costs and heating capacities vary, but a typical wood stove runs between $3,000 and $5,000. A pellet stove, which feeds fuel automatically, can cost between $4,000 and $6,000, Asselin said.

But as with so many products, wood stoves are suffering from production and shipping delays. Asselin is warning customers not to procrastinate.

“People looking for alternative heating need to shop early,” he said. “Later this fall, there won’t be much available.”

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Tony Giambro, owner of Paris Autobarn in South Paris, the state’s first used car dealer for electric and hybrid vehicles, photographed on March 29. Giambro is standing near a 2020 Nissan Leaf and a 2017 Kia Soul Electric. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

ELECTRIC VEHICLES LIMITED

Since the Middle East oil embargo in 1973, interest in fuel-efficient vehicles has always spiked when gasoline becomes expensive. What’s different in 2022 is the growing variety of plug-in and hybrid vehicles on the market or coming soon. Even at today’s power rates in Maine, electric cars can travel the same distance as a comparable gasoline car for less than half the cost. And that doesn’t include the lower cost of maintaining a battery-powered car.

But finding an EV or plug-in hybrid can be a challenge. At Paris Autobarn, only four vehicles were listed online for sale in late March.

One was a 2017 Toyota Prius Prime with 63,000 miles. It’s a plug-in hybrid that can travel around 23 miles on its battery before switching to its gas engine, which returns more than 50 miles per gallon. But the asking price was $27,990, not far from the cost when the car was new. And used plug-ins don’t qualify for a $7,500 federal tax credit.

“It’s a direct result of supply and demand,” said Giambro, the company’s owner.

America’s best selling EV brand, Tesla, gets a lot of media buzz. But most Mainers can’t afford a new car that starts at $47,000, and Tesla vehicles no longer qualify for the federal tax credit. The most popular models at Paris Autobarn are the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Bolt.

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“But now I can’t get them,” Giambro said. “I can’t replace the ones I’ve sold.”

The current market conditions are frustrating to Stoddard. His agency offers rebates that cut $2,000 off the price for a fully electric vehicle and $1,000 for a plug-in hybrid. Even more money is available to low-income residents.

Buying a car is a big decision for most Mainers. Stoddard suggests using this time, while manufacturers are replenishing their stock, to research models and consider how and where to recharge the vehicle.

“When you’re ready, make the jump,” he said. “Don’t lock in another decade in a fossil fuel car.”

A couple of passengers board a Metro bus on Elm Street in Portland on April 1. Southern Maine public transit agencies are lowering fares and expanding services using $7 million granted to the region through the American Rescue Plan Act. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

MORE MAY DITCH CARS

High gasoline prices and work-from-home options expanded during the pandemic could also prompt some Mainers to consider whether they need a car at all, or whether a family needs more than one. Mass transit officials in southern Maine want to make that calculus easier.

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Bus ridership fell sharply during the pandemic at Greater Portland Metro, from a peak of over 1.9 million in 2018, to just over 1 million in 2020. But it’s starting to rebound now, as COVID-19 restrictions ease and gasoline prices rise. Average daily ridership climbed from 3,647 in late January to 4,636 in mid-March.

Aided by $7 million of federal pandemic relief funds, Metro is increasing service on key routes and temporarily reducing fares by half, at least through the end of the year, to attract riders and encourage residents to develop new habits.

It will be experimenting with GPS technology that turns traffic lights green when buses approach intersections on Washington and Forest avenues in Portland. Metro also is working with transit agencies in southern Maine – including bus lines from York County to Windham and Brunswick, plus the Amtrak Downeaster train and Casco Bay Lines ferries – to better coordinate routes and services.

If they’re offered better mass transit, more Mainers could be convinced that they don’t need to get in a car to go somewhere, according to Greg Jordan, Metro’s executive director.

“We just need to do a better job in making transit easier,” Jordan said. “It takes a lot of work. It takes funding and partnerships.”

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