Maine lawmakers have a great opportunity to fairly distribute the costs and benefits of solar power, setting a five-year course that would expand use of renewable energy in a sustainable way.
That is, if they don’t let politics get in the way.
On the table is a compromise bill put together by a stakeholder group, which included power utilities, environmental groups and representatives of a nascent solar energy installation industry.
What they propose is a 12-fold increase in solar power generation over the next five years, with 250 megawatts of new generation roughly split between small rooftop solar installations on homes and small businesses, and larger community, industrial and grid-scale projects. Owners of solar installations would sell all the excess power that they produce on sunny days through a long-term contract, which would be credited against the power that they use at night and on cloudy days, lowering their electric bills.
But like most important pieces of legislation passed over the past five years, it will require two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate, which would have to stick together in the face of a likely veto by Gov. LePage. Although his energy office participated in the stakeholder group, he has already signaled his opposition.
But lawmakers should not follow his lead. The compromise plan would put more clean energy on the grid during peak demand months, keeping the power supply reliable. And it also would create jobs and keep money spent on energy in local economies instead of shipping it out of state. This is an opportunity to set Maine on a positive course, and lawmakers should not let it pass them by.
Most opposition to solar power comes from climate-change skeptics, who question the need for any renewable power sources. But the evidence in Maine is mounting that our use of carbon-based energy is shortening our winters, changing the chemical composition of our offshore waters and threatening key industries from forestry to skiing.
There are, however, some legitimate concerns about the way that the cost of operating the electric grid is shared between solar and non-solar electric customers. Gov. LePage has rightly pointed out that what has been the high cost of installing solar panels made them unavailable to lower-income utility customers and shifted the responsibility for maintaining the grid onto them from wealthier customers who could afford to make the investment.
That critique, however, does not take into account the rapid decline in the price of solar equipment, which is putting it within reach of a greater number of consumers. And it doesn’t factor in what has been a very small amount of power produced by home-based solar to date – much less than 1 percent of the power on the grid – making the shifted costs more of a theoretical complaint than a real problem.
The proposed plan would fairly share costs even as solar generation grows dramatically, by charging solar customers the full cost of buying electricity before applying credit for excess power sold.
And it would create opportunities for people who can’t currently afford to install solar panels, or live in apartments or developments where that would be impossible, to participate in community solar installations and earn energy credits that lower their bills. Large-scale installations could lower energy costs for manufacturing facilities or shopping malls, and grid-scale projects could put power generation where it’s needed to meet demand at the time of year that it’s needed most. This would benefit all customers who use the grid, whether they choose to invest in solar power or not.
Maine lawmakers should not let politics get in the way of this good idea, and they should seize this opportunity to expand solar power in a sustainable way.