Our state climate strategy is called “Maine Won’t Wait” for a reason. When it comes to climate change, patience is no virtue.

We need to stop burning fossil fuels as soon as possible if we are going to put off even worse catastrophes than the heat waves, severe storms and forest fires we saw in 2021. We need everyone to be working toward the same goal, and it’s frustrating to see how hard that can be.

One example is the experience of Maine people who signed up to buy their electricity from a community solar farm last year but are still waiting for service.

Community solar promises to be a game changer for Maine households, who pay some of the highest electric rates in the country.

Not everyone can put solar panels on their roof, but anyone who pays an electric bill can subscribe to a remote solar farm that supplies power to the grid. Subscribers get a discount on their electric bill, typically 10 percent to 15 percent in Maine, while reducing demand for fossil fuel generated power.

The arrangement makes so much sense that it’s hard to believe that it was not legal in Maine until 2019. Once Gov. Mills came into office and signed the law that permitted community solar projects, thousands of people signed up with developers, who would start putting a credit on their electric bills as soon as the panels were up and connected to the grid.

Advertisement

Many of those customers are still waiting.

The new generators ran into the old grid, which was built based on 20-year-old assumptions about how power would be generated and distributed. Solar farms are intermittent power producers, and if too many are connected to the same substation, they could create imbalances that make the system unstable.

Before these projects can go online, ISO New England, the region’s grid operator, is requiring so-called cluster studies to determine whether the grid can handle the new power sources. At best, these studies will delay discounts for customers at a time when the price of electricity is climbing. At worst, they will find that the solar power won’t come online at all because they would require expensive grid upgrades that would make the projects untenable.

The community solar delay is similar to a problem that presented itself itself earlier this year when approved grid-scale solar projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars were put on hold by Central Maine Power, because the company said it could put more power on the grid than it could handle. CMP is currently under investigation by the Maine Public Utilities Commission over its position on grid upgrades, and it is negotiating with the solar industry to settle the dispute.

What’s happening with community solar opens a small window on a very big problem. To phase out fossil fuels in time, we need the state and federal governments – along with utilities, regulators, power producers and consumers – to work together. At times, it seems that they are barely talking to each other.

The transition to renewables is only half of the climate equation. The other half is using electricity for things now powered by other fuels, such as oil furnaces and gas-powered cars. That’s going to require a lot more electricity than is currently produced and a level of coordination by all the players that’s been missing.

We don’t have time to watch promising projects stall and fail because we lacked the foresight to make sure that the necessary infrastructure exists. If the financial incentives aren’t driving the utilities in the right direction, regulators and lawmakers should make them do it. Maine can’t wait any longer.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.