By Norman Higgins and Sara Gideon, Special to the BDN
Bangor Daily News op-ed
A technological revolution is taking place in solar power. As solar panel technology matures, prices plummet, installation rates accelerate and new markets and businesses spring up. But Maine hasn’t benefited as much from this exciting trend as other states, even neighbors such as New Hampshire and Vermont.
We came together to support the solar bill, LD 1649, to move Maine further into 21st century energy technology and policy. Increasing access to solar power for our homes, businesses, towns and communities can bring tremendous benefits.
Our hometowns of Freeport and Dover-Foxcroft are pretty different communities. Our constituents, however, share many of the same goals. They love Maine and want to protect our beautiful state so families like ours can benefit from it for generations to come. They want the next generation of Mainers, our children and grandchildren, to have good-paying jobs without having to go out of state. And they struggle with the cost of energy to heat their homes and power their businesses.
Put simply, passing solar policy advances all of these goals. It is a clean energy resource that doesn’t depend on fluctuating fuel costs and has the ability, if done right, to bring down energy costs. It also can create hundreds of new jobs all across the state — an estimated 650 new solar jobs under LD 1649.
That last point is a big one. We’ve lagged in creating many new job opportunities that come with solar. We continue to have a job crisis in Maine, especially inland. It’s not simply a matter of opening a big factory or two. We need an economic infrastructure that allows businesses large and especially small to flourish. We need job opportunities for young people that allow them to develop skills for the 21st century. Solar power is no silver bullet, but it is a really good place to make progress.
One of the most exciting parts of the bill, one that improved through Republican contributions, is the emphasis on new kinds of solar development. This includes more access for farms and other agricultural businesses, opportunities for municipalities to use large-scale solar to lower energy costs and attract businesses, and lifting barriers that inhibit more community solar farms.
In Freeport, a community solar farm has brought solar power to more people. This is an important way for residents and small businesses to lower their energy bills and make costs more predictable, even if they can’t put solar on their own rooftops.
The current 10-person limit on community solar prevents economies of scale. That may work for some in Freeport, but it’s just not good enough for many in Dover-Foxcroft. Larger scale community solar farms make for cheaper individual shares.
This bill puts solar within reach for more Mainers, expanding solar north and inland. And the emphasis on agricultural solar further pushes solar into rural Maine.
Cities and towns could take advantage of solar on large municipal buildings or unused lands. Lower, fixed municipal energy costs means lower property taxes and more stable budgets.
We can’t close without saying a few words about costs and benefits to ratepayers. This bill has the support of Maine’s public advocate because, under his careful analysis, it will lower costs for all ratepayers, saving them an estimated $58 million to $110 million.
If we do not override the governor’s veto, the best case scenario is continued net-metering — our current, inefficient billing and credit system — and a higher burden for ratepayers. The worst-case scenario is shutting down our fledgling solar industry. The ratepayer protections were further strengthened with an amendment from two Republican members of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, and honed in a bipartisan spirit.
That is the story of this bill and where we are today. Working together, listening to our differences and working to find common ground. It started with utilities and solar installers and others finding agreement and continued with legislators of different parties and from very different parts of the state.
We were glad when Gov. Paul LePage recently reached out to bill proponents. Our coalition was ready to seek common ground and agreed to his first two proposals. But he then added another demand that we simply could not accept. It was a drastic price cap that would devastate our homegrown solar businesses.
We now, unfortunately, must override a veto to make this bill law. We are committed to that because it is right thing to do for Maine today and for our future.
Rep. Norman Higgins, R-Dover-Foxcroft, is a member of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee who cosponsored the amendment to LD 1649. Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, is the assistant House majority leader and the sponsor of the legislation that created the stakeholder process that led to LD 1649.