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Annie Ropeik, Energy News Network
Maine’s deepening housing crisis is colliding with the global climate crisis.
The state’s population is growing faster than its housing supply — and that growth is driven in part by people seeking out temperate locations to call home in a rapidly warming world.
Some advocates see an opportunity in tackling these two crises at the same time, if state leaders can steer new construction toward the type of denser, all-electric, energy efficient housing that can help bring down living costs and carbon emissions.
Maine Conservation Voters policy director Kathleen Meil is part of the buildings working group of the Maine Climate Council, which is preparing to update its ambitious, four-year 2020 climate plan this fall. She hopes the next phase of their work will dig deeper into this intersection.
“It’s one of the things that I actually find really exciting about this work and about everything related to climate action,” Meil said. “It feels much better than being overwhelmed… We get to tackle all of the most important problems that people face at the same time.’”
Data shows that Maine especially lacks housing units that are affordable for the lowest-income people. The state has struggled to shelter thousands of unhoused people and hundreds of incoming asylum-seekers from overseas. And the new arrivals are likely only to increase as the climate warms.
Despite facing climate change impacts of their own, Northern New England states have been called potential “climate havens,” where the temperate and relatively wildfire- and hurricane-free climate is poised to be a draw for people fleeing more extreme conditions.
Staff with the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (MIRC) say people emigrating to Maine, including from countries in Africa, may not cite climate change as the topline reason they moved — but dig a little deeper and its signature can be seen throughout migration patterns worldwide.
“We certainly expect, as time moves on, to see more and more [people] be displaced,” domestically and abroad, said MIRC’s Tobin Williamson. “Now’s the time to build housing for them.”
This preparation means infrastructure upgrades and other community planning improvements, he said, including denser housing development, enabled by a bill the state passed last year.
But in order to meet state goals for lowering emissions and to help combat the climate changes that are helping fuel this migration, the homes that Maine adds to meet the needs of new and existing residents will also need to be built differently than traditional Maine homes.
Maine relies more than any other state on pricey, carbon-intensive heating oil. Though electric heat pumps are increasingly efficient in cold temperatures, these and similar upgrades can make for complicated retrofits in older, less weatherized homes, which are common in Maine.
State officials announced in late July that they have already met an initial climate plan target for installing 100,000 new heat pumps by 2025. More aggressive goals for future years are based on models for reducing emissions.
For new construction, upgrades like these are perhaps “the single biggest no-brainer in the field,” said Matt Rusteika of the Building Decarbonization Coalition.
The big potential users of fossil fuel power in most homes, he said, are the space heating and cooling systems, water heating, stove and oven, and washer and dryer. Where available, gas is commonly used to power these, and is a candidate for change-out. Maine has less home gas access than nearly any other state, putting it at a climate advantage.
“It can actually be cheaper to build a new home or a new building with electrification,” Rusteika said, “than it is to build something with fossil fuels.”
A 2022 law in Maine mandates that new construction funded by the state must meet a high-level energy efficiency standard, such as the Passive House certification or something similar, emphasizing electrification, healthy air quality and low, predictable energy costs.
Fossil fuel power is “not necessary, in a climate way” in new housing, said Naomi Beal, who leads passivhausMAINE. “It’s dirty, it’s expensive and volatile. … The value of a Passive House-level approach is that the costs are small and super predictable.”
But regulations to help decarbonize in new housing must strike a tricky balance, said the Affordable Housing Coalition’s Mitchell — improving housing quality, sustainability and affordability, without making projects too expensive to build or otherwise slowing the pace of development to house those most in need.
“There’s kind of that sweet spot, because there’s also a social equity issue involved in this,” Mitchell said. “The cost of energy efficiency and addressing climate change shouldn’t fully fall on the backs of people in need of affordable housing.”
Rusteika said regulatory requirements can give developers more certainty, but aren’t always needed at a time when climate-friendly building alternatives are becoming cost-competitive.
“A lot of people choose electrification on the merits,” he said. “It’s not an ‘eat your vegetables’ thing.”
One case study is the West End Apartments, a two-building affordable housing complex in South Portland, Maine that opened half in 2021 and half this year. Some units were set aside to house asylum-seekers.
The complex was built to a near-Passive House standard mainly to cut operating costs, said architect Jesse Thompson. It has all electric appliances, heat and utilities, except for gas water heaters. These were the cheapest option when the project was designed, but electric water heaters might be preferable in the near future, he said.
“It’s changing really, really rapidly,” Thompson said. “The machinery’s getting less expensive; the state is pushing much harder to do it.”
This story was originally published by Energy News Network and is reprinted here with permission under a Creative Commons license. It was supported by the MIT Environmental Solutions Journalism Fellowship as part of a project first published in The Maine Monitor, a nonprofit newsroom.