In South Portland, benefits of electric lawn care run up against feelings about cost and climate
Hannah Holmes of South Portland loves her electric lawnmower. It's quieter and more eco-friendly than your typical gas mower. She can push it with one hand.
But it has its drawbacks. One battery has just enough charge to last about 30 to 45 minutes. People who have big yards either need multiple batteries — which are not cheap, Holmes noted — or need to accept that mowing the lawn will have to happen in stages. And you can't let the lawn grow too long.
"It doesn't like tall grass, it just doesn't have the horsepower of a gas-powered motor, so it'll stall out on tall grass," she says, carefully maneuvering the push mower through a hillock of grass.
It's springtime, and people are starting to plant flowers and mow their lawns. South Portland is looking at ways to make that process more climate-friendly as part of its sustainability goals. It's a small part of South Portland's ambitious One Climate Future plan.
But it's wrapped up in the effort to move away from gas-powered vehicles. Part of that effort could be phasing out traditional lawnmowers' use in the future. That suggestion has mostly been met with resistance.
This story is part of our series "Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time."
At a March 28 city council meeting, Kyle Gravel of Evergreen Yard Card said the cost of switching from gas-powered equipment to electric would be too costly.
"For my business it would cost upwards of six figures just to purchase the equipment needed to replace our small engine fleet, not including the charging infrastructure and the batteries that would be an additional cost," he said.
For residents like Ed Haskill, the city's entire climate strategy is pointless, given the global scale of greenhouse gas emissions.
"Yes, it would be nice if everything was perfect and wonderful and we could change the world in South Portland, but until you get India and China onboard, you ain't changing the climate," he said.
Even South Portland mayor Katherine Lewis was skeptical.
"I know this sounds harsh but I really am concerned that we are turning into, like, a wealthy environmental Disney," she said.
But Julie Rosenbach — the city's sustainability director — says its still very early in the planning process.
"I think people got ahead of what was actually being proposed, because nothing has actually been proposed yet," she said.
In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency found lawn care equipment make up 5% of all air pollution in the United States. And the California Air Resource Board says one hour of operating a commercial lawnmower can create as many harmful air particles as driving a car 300 miles.
Figures like that are partially why Jason Batchelor went all-electric when he started his landscaping business Sweet Pea Lawn Care in 2017.
"We shouldn't be exposed to, you know, extreme noises," he said. "We should just be able to live in our neighborhoods in peace and not have to worry about the health benefits the health detriments from other people using carbon emissions."
The company was recently bought by Greencare Landscape Management of Scarborough. Director of Business Development Dave Perron said demand for quieter lawn care has increased since the pandemic ushered in a new age of working from home.
"A third of our fleet right now is electric, and hopefully down the road, it will be 100%," he said
Perron said he understands why some people might balk at switching. Lawn care equipment is expensive. But he sees savings down the road.
"Really you're just looking at, you know, maintaining your mower blades and your mower deck and your belts and that's all stuff we can do here and in shop," he said.
South Portland is trying to ease the burden for those interested in making the switch. Its Electrify Everything! program offers rebates of up to $300 for electric lawnmowers and $100 for leaf blowers. It's paid for by American Rescue Plan Act dollars. It's also starting an electric tool library this summer for residents to try equipment out.
It might work better than banning gas mowers outright, said Holmes. She thinks people reacted so strongly because they felt they would be forced to make a choice:
"Anytime you mandate how people have to behave, especially on their property, hackles go up automatically."
And Dave Perron of Greencare Landscape thinks there's a lot of pride tied up in how a yard looks.
"My dad was the kind of guy when I was a kid that he'd be out there, it's a little bit hyperbolic, but with a ruler and scissors, making sure this lawn was where it needed to be; I think people are really passionate about their homes," he said.
Reducing the use of gas-powered lawn equipment might inflame passions, but South Portland and Portland together adopted a goal of reducing carbon emissions by 80% in 2030. Rosenbach said the city won't get there if it doesn't make some changes.
"So what we're trying to do is help people move towards electrification and not gas-based equipment and vehicles and systems in their houses," Rosenbach said.
South Portland will hear a more formal proposal for what to do with gas mowers sometime this summer.