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  • Citizens, workers, businesses, and others urge adoption of strong solar policy for Maine

    Maine is falling behind on solar power and jobs 

    By Ramona du Houx

    A diverse group of over 70 people and organizations gathered on December 10th at the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to urge policymakers to develop and adopt a comprehensive solar policy that can move Maine out of last place in the region for solar power and solar jobs. Since September, the PUC has been holding a series of stakeholder meetings to develop and evaluate solar policy concepts and it plans to issue a report to lawmakers in the coming legislative session.

    “Solar power is creating huge opportunities for job creation across the region and across the country,” said Nick Paquet, an electrician with the IBEW union. “Every megawatt of solar power means 20 electricians put to work. Maine has made good strides toward renewable energy and renewable energy jobs, but we’re woefully behind on solar. That should change if we are serious about providing more good quality jobs for Mainers.”

    Maine’s lack of a comprehensive solar policy is hurting our economy and environment and leaves the state missing out on the full benefits of solar to lower energy costs. Recent analysis has shown that solar power in Maine can reduce electricity costs for everyone because it operates during peak hours and is typically located close to where power is consumed.

    In 2005, Governor John Baldacci established Maine's first solar rebate program. However, funds have since run out for the inititive and Governor Paul LePage has not had the wisdom to continue the program. While the Baldacci adminstration led to bipartisan agreements, like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Inititive (RGGI) and others,  progressing clean energy technologies in Maine, the LePage administration is in climate change denial. (photo of Governor Baldacci at the kick-start of his rebate program. photo by Ramona du Houx)

    “Like most people, I had gotten used to just paying my electric bill every month and didn’t know that I had any choice over price or how that electricity is generated,” said Portland resident Elissa Armstrong. “Recently, my husband and I have invested in solar panels on our house and also in a community solar project. It is a great relief to keep our energy dollars here in Maine, where the sun shines. Now that solar has come down in price, there is a tremendous opportunity for nearly all Mainers to make an upfront investment to get off the expensive dependence on power from away.”

    Solar technology and markets have exploded over the last few years as prices have fallen dramatically—nearly 75 percent in the last five years. In the last three years alone, the U.S. has installed roughly 15,000 MW of solar capacity – as much as fifteen nuclear power plants. In 2014, there were 186,000 new residential solar systems installed. (GTM Market Insights, 2014)

    “Because Maine is one of the few states that lacks pro-solar policies, Maine families and businesses are missing out on the enormous economic and environmental benefits of advanced solar energy technology,” said Glen Brand, Sierra Club Maine Chapter Director. “It’s time for our state to move forward with a solar policy that builds upon what’s working to reduce pollution, create good jobs, and lower and stabilize energy costs, while helping Mainers to become more energy secure and independent.”

    However, at the start of 2015, Maine had the lowest amount of solar installed per capita in the region, and the lowest number of solar jobs per capita. In the first half of this year, Maine’s newly installed solar placed it among the bottom 15 of the fifty states, while every other state in the Northeast was in the top twenty-six. (GTM Market Insights, 2015-Q2)

    The Maine Legislature has failed to pass any substantive solar policy in the past three sessions, in large part due to opposition from the governor or utilities. Last year the Legislature had to override the governor’s veto to develop an analysis of the value of solar for Maine ratepayers. That analysis by the PUC surprised many by showing that solar power actually lowers prices for all ratepayers by bringing down the cost of transmission lines and reducing the use of the most expensive power plants during the summer.

    Earlier this year the Legislature overrode the governor’s veto of a Resolve that directed the PUC to conduct a stakeholder process and seek consensus on a significant new solar policy—a process that was supported by solar advocates and utilities alike.

    “Although there are many issues are not yet resolved, these PUC meetings have been extremely constructive,” said Dylan Voorhees, Clean Energy Director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “As we look to the upcoming session, lawmakers will need to show leadership to put an effective solar policy into law that will get Maine out of last place on solar. It is clear that three is overwhelming support for solar, here in Maine.”

    Despite the lack of a clear solar policy, Mainers are increasingly investing in solar power for their homes, businesses, and communities. Most are taking advantage of Maine’s net-metering rules. Net-metering allows customers to get bill credits for solar production that can be used to offset the cost of power they consume from the grid. Although it does not work as well for larger solar installations, net-metering makes it easier for residential customers to install solar. Therefore solar supporters said that net-metering should stay in place as new alternatives are explored and evaluated.

    Opportunities for Solar farms to power towns and communities-

    Photo: The Freeport community solar farm being built by ReVison Energy.

    “The electricity bill for the City of Rockland costs taxpayers over $400,000/year in taxes and fees,” said Rockland City Councilor Larry Pritchett. “Across Maine, towns and cities own 1,800 acres of capped landfills that could be excellent sites for developing solar farms to generate power for cities and schools, or for community solar farms to provide power to local residents and businesses. Many of these could be excellent sites for developing solar farms to generate power for city. Despite many solar landfills in other states, Maine’s outdated rate structures, and lack of solar policy, make it almost impossible for towns to recoup the cost of solar investment and achieve the tremendous benefits for our citizens that solar can offer.”

    The diverse group of solar supporters did said they are looking for a solar policy that:

    • Increases the amount of solar installed in Maine, increasing renewable energy generation and stability for more solar jobs. (The PUC has determined that the status quo is likely to yield 100-150 MW of solar by 2021.)          
    • Treats solar homeowners and businesses fairly—protecting their ability to generate their own power and recognizing the value of the solar they provide to the grid—while providing a clear benefit for other ratepayers.
    • Works well for solar customers of all sorts and sizes, from homeowners to large businesses, and from community solar to grid-scale solar farms.

    “Maine congregations are starting to look more at solar power, for their church buildings and with their members,” said Reverend Carrie Johnson, the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Augusta. “Solar is an important part of our response to the threat of climate change, which people of faith are deeply concerned about. It is also a way for individuals and communities—including congregations—to take direct action to reduce our own dependence on fossil fuels. With state policy as a partner, there is tremendous opportunity for us to work together for a solar future for Maine.”