Lacking oil, gas or coal reserves, Maine frets about high energy costs. But advocates say it’s virtually ignoring a major energy source that could help displace fossil fuels, create jobs and save money: the sun.
Any perception that Maine is too cold or cloudy to take advantage of solar energy should fade, they say, because of action taken recently in other Northeast states. New York, for instance, announced a $1 billion plan this month to install enough solar-electric panels to power 465,000 homes.
Maine is the only state in New England without any specific policies that support solar energy, advocates say.
“Solar power is taking off around the region, and nationally, it’s going gangbusters,” said Dylan Voorhees, clean-energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “I think there’s a strong interest in looking at that, and what we’re missing.”
That interest will be gauged Tuesday in Augusta, when the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee holds a public hearing on a bill meant to encourage greater development of solar power in Maine. Under the legislation, the state would study solar power’s financial value and set goals for certain amounts of generation.
The bill has attracted co-sponsors who include leading Democratic lawmakers and a co-chair of the energy committee. That virtually ensures it will be considered by the full Legislature.
On Thursday, Voorhees’ group and a coalition of 27 other environmental and conservation organizations will hold a news conference at 11 a.m. at the State House Welcome Center to discuss their priorities for this legislative session. The solar bill is expected to be a priority.
But questions are being raised about the wisdom of setting ambitious goals for solar-electric installation before the overall costs and benefits are calculated.
Two other bills that are moving through the legislative process complement the solar bill. One would revive a recently repealed rebate program for installing certain wind- and solar-energy equipment. The other, called a feed-in tariff, would require utilities to buy power from small generators of renewable power at a set rate. Both would use small amounts of ratepayers’ money for funding.
Today’s most common solar-panel technologies convert the sun’s rays into heat or electricity. Most solar installations in Maine are photovoltaic, or solar-electric.
Led in part by imports from China, panel or module prices have tumbled in recent years, which has greatly cut the cost of producing electricity. That led to a banner year for the U.S. solar industry in 2013, when more capacity was installed than in Germany, a former world leader in solar installations.
Advocates like to point out that Germany averages one-third less sunshine than Maine, but has had periods when the sun has provided more than 30 percent of its consumed power.
Not as frequently mentioned is that Germany’s solar boom has been driven by generous feed-in tariffs and other subsidies that are now being reduced.
The German experience highlights the critical role that public policy plays in the development of solar energy. In the United States, people who install renewable energy systems, including solar, qualify for a 30 percent credit on their federal taxes. The credit is a foundation of the industry.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s NY-Sun Incentive program started in 2012. In one year, it doubled the solar capacity that had been installed in the state over a decade. The current 3,000-megawatt goal includes $40 million a year in state funds for utility incentive programs for small and mid-sized projects. The overall plan could create 13,000 jobs.
By comparison, Maine’s proposed goals are modest.
Maine has between three and four megawatts of installed capacity now, with one megawatt enough to power 167 average homes. The solar bill would set a goal of at least 40 megawatts by 2016, 200 megawatts by 2020 and 500 megawatts by 2030.
By comparison, commercial-scale wind power in Maine has a capacity of more than 400 megawatts, about 3 percent of the state’s total generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
“That’s aggressive, as it should be,” said Fortunat Mueller, a co-founder of ReVision Energy in Portland. “When they get the policy right, it’s achievable.”
ReVision, the state’s largest solar installer, has 60 employees and has put up more than 3,000 systems in Maine and New Hampshire. To hit the 40-megawatt benchmark, Mueller figures solar panels could go on 4,000 homes and 330 businesses. That could create 2,600 jobs, based on experiences in other states.
Democratic Sen. Eloise Vitelli of Arrowsic, said the goals reflect how far behind Maine is in encouraging solar development. “It’s to make the point that, if we’re going to get there, we need to have a plan and set some goals,” she said.
But megawatts may not be the best way to gauge solar power in Maine, said Patrick Woodcock, director of the Governor’s Energy Office. Why not the number of jobs, or the cost of electricity, he asked?
“Governor LePage’s goal is to lower the price of electricity for Mainers,” he said.
The goal-setting provision also is being questioned by Central Maine Power Co.
CMP spokesman John Carroll noted that the bill would ask the Public Utilities Commission to study the value of solar energy and report back to the Legislature in January 2015.
“It seems like setting megawatt goals before doing the basic research is out of sequence,” he said.
Location also may be part of the debate.
In Boothbay Harbor, the PUC is overseeing an experiment testing a combination of solar power, efficiency measures and backup generation as a cheaper alternative to building a new transmission line. The solar panels work best in the summer, when the demand for electricity in the resort town is highest.
“Putting solar where it’s needed magnifies the benefits,” said Steve Hinchman, a lawyer for Grid Solar, the company that’s carrying out the experiment.
Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:
This story was updated at 8:27 a.m. on January 16, 2014 to clarify State Sen. Eloise Vitelii’s residence.