FORT KENT– In the wake of the installation of the new biomass plant at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and Behavioral Sciences Soraya Cardenas’ environmental sociology class is producing a 20 to 30 minute documentary film for the town of Fort Kent about the issues associated with producing, distributing, and utilizing renewable energy locally.
The film is tentatively titled “In Search of Affordable Heat: Aroostook County, Maine.”
With the National Science Foundation-funded and ME EPSCoR Sustainability Solutions Initiative- supported documentary research, Cardenas and her 24 students, Intern Greg McIntosh, and production and technological advisor Aaron Bernstein, who is UMFK’s Assistant Director of Media Services, have collaborated to provide an answer to the question, “Is biomass (wood and grass) a realistic sustainable solution alternative to oil in Aroostook County?”
Demographic research indicates that the Aroostook population is an older, declining, less-educated, and poor population (median income in Aroostook is approximately $10,000 a year less than the overall Maine median and $20,000 less than the U.S. median), which presents challenges to developing a biomass-based economy or infrastructure, said Cardenas. From the difficulties for an older population inherent in the labor-intensive nature of heating with biomass products to the prohibitive cost of installing a biomass burner in a population in which many cannot afford a home, much less a heating furnace upgrade, the benefits to biomass would have to be substantial to overcome the challenges posed.
The fact that heating oil prices have raised so high that they comprise ten percent of a $36,000 a year income may provide that incentive, however. For Aroostook County’s population, heating with oil at those prices may be economically non-feasible.
Decisions around heating budgets affect more than just the older residents. Cardenas pointed out that heating oil prices and consequent decisions affect the future of local children as well, when school board decisions are based on cutting spending partially in response to rising expense costs.
According to a graph produced in the New York Times in January of this year, New England is highly dependent on heating with oil, with Maine one of the most dependent states in the United States, aside from Alaska. Cardenas’ research indicates that approximately ten percent of the total U.S. population is dependent on oil to heat their homes. In Maine, that figure rises to 76 percent, a staggering increase. With that dependency in mind, for every $1 increase in heating oil prices, $250 million dollars leaves the state of Maine every year.
The class project will be one of the projects showcased in the upcoming Scholar’s Symposium at UMFK on April 20, where the class will present to the public a more in-depth look at these issues. The National Science Foundation has also provided funding for several other groups on campus, including projects led by professors Kim Borges, Dave Hobbins, and Kurt Holzhausen. Cardenas is anticipating the use of a smaller, five-minute, supplementary video on what biomass is, produced by Greg McIntosh and Bernice Michaud with the assistance of Bernstein, by the Northern Maine Development Commission to help educate the public about biomass.
The Environmental Sociology class will premiere the documentary on May 4at 11 a.m. and again at 6 p.m., likely in the Fox Auditorium at UMFK.