Something remarkable happened in Augusta last week that sent young interns scrambling to find the law library’s well-worn dictionaries. They were searching for the meaning of a word that was once commonplace in Augusta but is so rarely invoked now that its meaning has been lost. The word is “collaboration.”
Over the last six months an extraordinary conversation has been underway in Augusta, outside the glare of politics, about how to aggressively grow solar power in Maine.
At the table were a wide array of stakeholders in the solar energy field, including installers, users, environmental groups, municipalities, the Public Advocate’s Office and Central Maine Power.
What they ultimately produced isn’t perfect, but it is nonetheless extraordinary. It is an ambitious goal to increase solar use by tenfold over the next five years, including large, “grid-scale” projects, municipal landfill projects, community solar and small-scale home and business systems.
Their agreement – presented Thursday to the Legislature’s energy committee – has the potential to become the template for other states wrestling with these issues. More importantly, it should point the way to how we solve difficult problems here in Maine, by doing what Mainers have done before us, which is to pull together, roll up our sleeves and get the job done.
The plan fairly balances the interests of solar providers and utility ratepayers. It also ensures stability, through long-term contracts for those who install or build solar systems, with guaranteed rates of return when any excess power is produced.
It opens new doors to community solar projects, for people without sunny roofs. And the deal has a built-in mechanism for regular review every six month, to ensure that its goals are being met. When they aren’t, incentives will increase to encourage more solar development.
Why does all of this matter? Because solar power is one way to build our next economy. We’re now sending about $5 billion a year of our hard-earned money to support the lavish lifestyle of the princes of Saudi Arabia and other oil producers. That’s $5 billion that we could be using here to produce our own energy, grow hundreds of new jobs, build our communities and help slow the oncoming tide of climate change.
If you’ve driven to Boston lately, and looked out the window, you know that solar fields are popping up everywhere. That’s because the cost of solar panels has dropped over the last decade by as much as 70 percent. And they’ve become more efficient.
The average homeowner can now install a solar system with a payback of 11 to 13 years. But those systems normally last for 30 to 40 years, quietly producing free energy.
Not enough sun in Maine, you say? Think again. The world’s leading solar producer is Germany, which, if you look at the latitudinal lines on your trusty atlas, is actually north of us. Maine’s location on the planet, relative to the sun, is roughly equivalent to Marseille, in southern Mediterranean France.
Many people deserve credit for this collaborative breakthrough. Three in particular should take a bow.
The first is the main architect of the deal, Tim Schneider, whose job as the state’s public advocate is to protect ratepayers. Next is state Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, a tireless champion of solar power and collaboration to solve problems in Maine. Finally, credit goes to state Rep. Nathan Wadsworth, R-Hiram, who has been engaged in this since the beginning.
Now the real work begins, as the agreement goes to the Legislature for approval. There, it faces some dangerous hurdles.
It could become the victim of too much tinkering, which could unravel the agreement. It could be killed outright in the Legislature, which isn’t always attracted to good ideas from somewhere else. And it could be vetoed by a governor who, last year at least, opposed all bills coming out of the Legislature.
Should it survive the Legislature and the governor, it could be quietly undermined by a Public Utilities Commission, appointed by Gov. Paul LePage, that hasn’t shown great interest in solar energy.
I hope that none of that happens, but vigilance is called for. The people who produced this agreement did some good work for Maine, and we owe them a debt. The Legislature should send this to the governor with overwhelming support, and the governor should welcome it.
If that doesn’t happen, it may be necessary, as it sometimes is, for Maine people to take matters into their own hands, with a citizen initiative to remove the barriers to solar power in Maine. If it gets to that, count me in.
Alan Caron is the owner of The Caron Group and the author of “Maine’s Next Economy” (envisionmaine.org) and “Reinventing Maine Government.” He can be contacted at: