Timber, Coal, Oil, and Wind

Mainers’ fortunes have long been tied to the region’s energy needs.

Rockport’s Indian Island Light in the foreground with a oil/chemical tanker ship and wind mills in the background

Peter Ralston had the 19th-century paintings of Fritz Hugh Lane in mind when he framed this shot, with Rockport’s Indian Island Light in the foreground. Just as Lane’s work portends the end of the Age of Sail, Ralston says, “I thought I would try to juxtapose some locally obvious symbols of the past, the present, and the future.”

By Phillip Conkling
Photo by Peter Ralston
From our July 2023 issue

Maine benefited from New England’s first energy crisis, back in the 18th century, when the residents of Boston exhausted the supply of firewood that could be readily hauled into their city by wagon. Enterprising Maine islanders responded to this market opportunity by stacking up schooners with deck loads of timber, hauling it “up” to Boston to heat the homes of an expanding urban population.

But hauling timber for firewood was cumbersome, so small-scale entrepreneurs began cutting trees on remote hillsides, from southern Maine to western Massachusetts. They buried the timber in shallow pits and set it afire to produce charcoal, and this charcoal heated homes throughout the region for more than a half century.

Then, in the 1880s, coal began to replace charcoal. It came to Maine and New England after railroads linked the coalfields of Appalachia with Virginia’s Newport News seaport, making coal exports from the region economically feasible. Steamships burning coal transformed ocean transportation, driving even the fastest clipper ships into an early grave and idling shipyards that had employed tens of thousands throughout New England — especially along Maine’s coast, where generations of skilled laborers had built internationally renowned sailing vessels. Ironically, a few shipyards hung on because their specially designed “downeasters” — four-, five-, six-, and ultimately seven-masted coal schooners — were the cheapest way to transport the huge volumes of coal needed to fuel textile mills and other manufacturing enterprises across the country. Such ships were launched from Maine boatyards for almost 30 years, until even they, the last of the wooden sailing ships, became obsolete.

The region’s coal era ended after World War II, when New Englanders began heating their homes with oil. It was plentiful, cheap, and cleaner than coal. Detroit cranked out ever-larger cars and trucks, powered by ever-greater amounts of gas and oil, which an expanding middle class eagerly paid for. Auto traffic changed Maine, of course, and during the same period, we became the state most heavily dependent on oil for home heat. Still, it was probably the easiest energy transition our region has made. Relatively few people lost jobs during the switch from coal to oil — most coal dealers transitioned into oil dealers. But I wonder if it led many of us to expect that developing new energy sources would be similarly painless.

Now, along comes wind — in particular, the effort to bring “big wind” to the Gulf of Maine, with arrays proposed for 40 or more miles offshore, where the winds are highest and most sustained. After two privileged years occupying this Room With a View, I will be winding down my tenure next month, and my final column will consider what wind power may mean for the view from my room — and some of the trade-offs Mainers will need to weigh. In 2009, Maine set a goal of installing 5,000 megawatts of wind power in the Gulf of Maine by 2030. To date, not a single watt has been sited offshore. The governor has proposed a research array, with a dozen or so large floating turbines, anchored with long cables to the seabed. Having consulted on similar demonstration projects, I’ve had a chance to hear a range of reactions. It’s the kind of large-scale undertaking on which meeting the state’s emissions goals depends — and which plenty of Mainers oppose. If Maine’s energy history shows us anything, it is this: transitions are usually wrenching.

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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