AUGUSTA — The coastal towns of South Portland and Gouldsboro don’t share many attributes, apart from dramatic ocean and harbor views.
But on Thursday, officials from the towns located roughly 150 miles apart – one in bustling Cumberland County and the other in rural Down East Maine – urged lawmakers to support solar energy proposals that they claim are critical to plans to turn undesirable properties into sources of renewable energy.
South Portland City Planner Tex Haeuser said an old, now-closed landfill “would be perfect for a large solar array,” but the project is likely financially infeasible under current Maine policies.
“Twenty years ago, if you had told me I’d be here speaking in support of solar energy I would have said you were crazy, but I think the time has come,” added Dana Rice, chairman of the Board of Selectmen in Gouldsboro, where a company wants to build Maine’s largest solar energy system on former Navy land.
They were among dozens of people urging state lawmakers to approve proposed regulatory changes that they say are needed to help Maine catch up with the states that are benefiting from a booming solar industry.
“Those are investments that are leading to huge growth in solar jobs across the country,” said Dylan Voorhees of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “But Maine is missing out and falling behind, and that is to the detriment of our economy and to our people and to our environment.”
L.D. 1263, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Sara Gideon of Freeport, would require 2.5 percent of Maine’s electricity mix to come from solar by 2022 and offer new financial incentives to help homeowners and businesses more quickly pay off their solar installations. Those incentives could help reduce the payback time for a typical home solar system in Maine from 14 years to eight years.
The bill also would lift a cap that currently prevents groups of more than 10 partners from building and operating a larger solar power system, a policy that speakers said Thursday is squelching investment in community-scale solar projects.
But utility representatives, the Maine Office of the Public Advocate and the Maine Energy Office warned that the proposals could add to Maine ratepayers’ bills. Central Maine Power, for instance, estimated that ratepayers would be paying $55 million in solar subsidies by 2022.
And with Gov. Paul LePage’s intense focus on lowering electricity rates – he vetoed a 2014 bill to provide a solar rebate because it was financed through surcharges on ratepayers – Gideon’s bill faces an uphill battle.
“CMP is willing to work on this bill to craft it in a way that we think we can get it through the Legislature,” said Joel Harrington, who represents Central Maine Power on legislative issues. “We want to see solar happening in Maine, but we need to develop a policy that is equitable on both sides.”
GROWTH ELSEWHERE ECLIPSES MAINE’S
A recent study by the Public Utilities Commission found that solar energy would have greater total value – when environmental and social benefits are included – than conventional power generation if the technology was widely adopted in Maine. The report estimated the long-term value of electricity produced from solar panels is roughly 33 cents per kilowatt hour, compared to the 15 cents that most Mainers pay for power that is conventionally generated and delivered on the electricity grid.
Maine previously offered up to a $2,000 rebate on solar power installations that were available through an Efficiency Maine program. However, the program expired in 2010 and, despite attempts from supporters, it has never been revived.
Mainers installed 4.5 megawatts of solar energy in 2014, an 80 percent increase over the previous year. Yet Massachusetts installed 303 megawatts of solar power in 2014 and Vermont installed 37.5 megawatts. And despite Maine’s standing as a regional powerhouse for renewable energy, the state trailed all other New England states with just 12 megawatts of total solar power.
ReVision Energy, which is Maine’s largest installer of solar energy systems, added 15 new employees last year, but most of those were at the company’s New Hampshire office. That’s because the financial incentives offered in New Hampshire and Massachusetts are driving growth in those markets much more so than in Maine, company co-founder Fortunat Mueller said.
Mueller urged members of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee to support additional financial incentives and to lift the current restriction that bars more than 10 homeowners or businesses from partnering on a large, community-scale solar system.
“New Hampshire is a large portion of our growth and will eclipse Maine under the current policies,” Mueller said.
INCREASED COST TO RATEPAYERS
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the bill calls for Maine to source 2.5 percent of electricity from solar energy by 2022. That would be accomplished by creating a new solar energy category to the state’s “renewable portfolio standard” that requires utilities to procure specific amounts of electricity from renewable sources.
Homeowners and businesses would then benefit financially by selling “solar renewable energy credits” to those utilities or to other buyers on a special commodities market.
George “Woody” Wood with Oak Point Energy Associates in Massachusetts said that, according to his calculations, adding solar to the renewable portfolio standard would result in an average $9 annual increase for ratepayers by 2022. But Harrington with CMP estimated the total annual cost, when calculating all of the proposed policy changes, was $36 to $48 per ratepayer by 2022.
Maine Public Advocate Timothy Schneider said that while his office believes adding more solar energy to the state’s grid is positive, the office opposed the bill based on the potential costs to ratepayers.
Patrick Woodcock, who is director of LePage’s Energy Office, said the administration also opposes creating a solar renewable energy credit market in Maine, and said his office will be proposing its own solar energy legislation in the coming weeks.
“We do have a responsibility to put forward what we think would be a proper solar policy for the state because I don’t think we have a good one in place,” Woodcock said.