Some Maine cities and towns are joining forces to push for state legislation that would promote solar power projects and energy-saving building construction, and they’re hoping to find a more receptive State House with a Democrat-controlled Legislature and Gov. Janet Mills in charge.

The new coalition is being organized by officials in South Portland, where the City Council recently passed a resolution that set renewable energy priorities as part of the city’s climate action plan.

The resolution also endorsed the city’s leadership of the coalition, which will be dedicated to overhauling “outdated energy policies at the state level that have not kept pace with progress.” The effort is intended to remove barriers at the state level that have prevented some cities and towns from adopting more aggressive energy policies and projects.

Julie Rosenbach, South Portland’s sustainability director, has begun reaching out to municipalities across the state that have already taken action to reduce waste, save money and energy, and lower carbon production.

“We’re looking to partner with any municipality that has an interest in sustainability,” Rosenbach said.

Portland and Falmouth are among the cities and towns that already have shown a willingness to join the coalition, in part because they’ve already collaborated on projects such as LED streetlight conversion and bans on plastic foam food containers.

“Working together makes sense,” said Kimberly Darling, Falmouth’s energy and sustainability coordinator. “Good policy translates into good projects. Solar is making money now, and this initiative would enable economies of scale that just aren’t allowed right now.”

The three municipal energy priorities would be to:

Revise net metering rules to allow municipal solar arrays that exceed the current 660-kilowatt limit and have more than nine off-site meters or users, among other changes.

Update Maine’s Uniform Building and Energy Code so cities and towns can develop so-called stretch codes, which phase in stricter requirements for energy-efficient construction and move communities toward net-zero buildings that produce as much energy as they use.

Streamline access to building energy-use data by aggregating utility accounts in a building and providing the data to building owners through an easy-to-use web portal. This would help cities like South Portland and Portland that have adopted benchmarking ordinances to gauge energy consumption in buildings and provide incentives to make them more energy-efficient.

AMBITIOUS CLIMATE ACTION

Buildings account for 40 percent of all energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, according to the New Building Institute. Maine is a major contributor with some of the oldest housing stock and most inefficient heating systems in the nation, Rosenbach said.

Trying to do its part, South Portland has adopted an ambitious climate action plan that calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent citywide by 2050 and running municipal operations 100 percent on clean energy by 2040.

The city’s effort to form a municipal coalition comes at a critical time in state, national and international politics. Since President Trump withdrew the United States from the U.N. Paris Agreement on climate change in 2017, 16 states and Puerto Rico have joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, staying committed to the agreement’s goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

In Maine, the fledgling municipal coalition anticipates a pending shift in leadership and energy policy at the State House now that Democratic Gov. Mills has replaced two-term Republican Gov. Paul LePage and assumed leadership of a now-Democratic Senate as well as House of Representatives.

While LePage espoused the need to lower energy costs, he railed against solar and wind energy and successfully blocked three bills meant to promote solar installations.

He was especially critical of net metering, a billing practice that pays homeowners with rooftop solar for excess electricity they send to the grid. The Maine Public Utilities Commission issued a ruling to phase out the practice, which is now tied up in court. LePage said the practice forces lower-income Mainers to subsidize the solar installations of wealthier Mainers.

Mills, by comparison, made climate action and renewable energy top priorities of her campaign, calling for an ambitious goal to reduce Maine’s climate-warming pollution 80 percent by 2030. The current state goal is to reduce emissions 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

In her inaugural address last week, Mills said her administration would “embrace” clean energy, promote alternative transportation modes and building weatherization, and set a goal to get 50 percent of Maine’s electricity from renewable resources.

“These actions will create good-paying jobs, preserve our environment and welcome young people to build a green future here in Maine,” Mills said. “And, by the way, when you drive by the Blaine House in the next few weeks, look for the new solar panels that we are going to install!”

Mills also has said she supports strengthening net metering. Solar supporters and Democratic lawmakers are expected to resubmit a legislative fix that LePage repeatedly vetoed. And she supports changing regulations to allow larger municipal solar projects that serve more users.

“I’m really hoping Janet Mills is going to fix that,” Darling said, noting that Falmouth is developing plans for a municipal solar array on its former landfill.

SHARED GOALS, MORE SUCCESS

South Portland took a major step toward its own climate action goals in October 2017 when it started operating a solar array consisting of 2,944 photovoltaic panels installed on a 34-acre former landfill off Highland Avenue.

At the time it was the largest municipal solar array in the state, expected to generate 1.2 million kilowatt-hours of energy per year, roughly 12 percent of the electricity used by the city’s municipal and school buildings.

South Portland developed the solar facility in partnership with neighboring Portland, which started operating a similar facility last month on its former landfill off Ocean Avenue.

The two cities are already working together on various projects to address shared sustainability concerns and anticipated climate-change impacts on Casco Bay and Portland Harbor, including a plan to respond to sea-level rise resulting from global warming.

Portland’s participation in the municipal coalition would be a natural extension of an existing partnership, said Troy Moon, Portland’s sustainability coordinator.

“We already share many of the same goals,” Moon said. “The more municipalities can work together to affect policy at the state level, the more successful we will be.”