December 5, 2013

Alan Caron: For solar power, Maine doesn’t lack sun as much as imagination

Germany and New Hampshire, where the economy is thriving, are promoting renewable energy. Why can’t we do the same?

Ask most people in Maine about solar power, and you get a sensible answer: “We’re too far north for it to really work here.”

That would also be the wrong answer. The world’s leading solar power country today is Germany, which sits at a latitude that runs roughly from the top of Maine to Labrador. Consequently, we get about 33 percent more solar energy than they do.

Over the last 20 years, Germany has installed more solar power than any country in the world, and it isn’t looking back. With more than a million separate solar systems in place, on a sunny day the country can produce as much as half of its energy needs with solar power.

Meanwhile, we’re still daydreaming about “too-cheap-to-meter” Quebec hydropower and building pipelines for natural gas that will help as a bridge, but will eventually rise in price as we become more hooked on it.

Germany is headed toward an energy independence that we find only in campaign speeches. And with the money it’s not shipping to Saudi Arabia, it’s building new jobs and houses and schools. What a crazy idea, that solar stuff.

With all its differences from Maine, Germany is like us in one important way. We both have to import oil to heat and power ourselves, at whatever the cost of the moment dictates. With three-quarters of Maine’s homes heated with oil, that’s a dangerous vulnerability, and an expensive one, costing us about three-quarters of a billion dollars a year that we export to oil producers.

Ah, say the scoffers, “we’ve got to be realistic.” We can’t have solar power here because we’re too cold and poor and downtrodden. Hogwash. Portland, Maine, is at about the same latitude as the French Riviera.

Our problem isn’t a lack of sun, it’s a lack of imagination. In this rapidly changing world, we spend too much time looking to the past for solutions, and trembling at the thought of doing something new or bold. Instead of building a future that makes sense for us, we hunker down and wait for some helpful accident to happen.

“But we don’t have money to subsidize things like solar energy,” cry the timidistas in Augusta. “We’ve got to cut spending and be tight-fisted like New Hampshire.” Then we’ll be rich! But when it comes to investments in things like solar, those conservative budget-cutters over in New Hampshire don’t let their ideology get in the way of their future.

While we’ve cut solar and renewable energy tax credits down to a big fat zero, over the last few years, making us the last state in New England in that category, New Hampshire has moved in the opposite direction. Today, that state provides $3,750 in rebates to homeowners and up to $50,000 to business owners who install solar systems. Massachusetts and Vermont do even more.

“But renewable energy cost more than oil and gas,” the do-nothing crowd reminds us. That’s true only if you look at the short-term number. But if solar enables us to keep our money here, instead of sending it to the Middle East, the real cost is a different story. The choice we have is to pay a little more so that we can to build an infrastructure that makes us independent of foreign oil, or continue our dependence but save a few bucks now. It isn’t a very tough call.

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