by Scott Thistle
Sun Journal news story
AUGUSTA — Maine is lagging behind the rest of New England when it comes to generating electricity with solar power, and the state’s position has little to do with the climate.
Lawmakers heard Tuesday that Maine gets 30 percent more sunlight each year than Germany, a European leader in solar energy.
That’s why a bill by state Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, seeking to boost Maine’s solar energy production goals into state law looks good to advocates for solar energy.
Vitelli’s bill, LD 1652, was before the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee on Tuesday. The committee will hold a work session and vote on the bill in the days ahead.
According to a recent report by ISO New England presented to the committee in December, Maine was at the bottom of the pack in New England, with 2 megawatts of installed solar generation.
The state is far behind New England’s solar leader, Massachusetts, which had 322 megawatts of solar power in 2013 and is on track to add another 200 megawatts in 2014. According to ISO New England, Maine’s on track to add just 0.8 megawatts of solar this year.
“It’s time for the sun to have its day in the sun,” Vitelli said in a prepared statement before the public hearing. “Investing in solar energy is critical to increasing access to energy, protecting our environment and strengthening our economy. It is the most abundant energy source on the planet, and we would do well to take advantage of it.”
Vitelli’s measure encourages solar energy development by establishing state solar energy generation goals.
It also looks to promotes solar energy development, generation and manufacturing within existing state programs such as the Small Enterprise Growth Program, the Maine Technology Institute, the Maine Rural Development Authority, the Finance Authority of Maine and the Department of Economic and Community Development.
Vitelli’s bill did not have a price tag on it but asks the Public Utilities Commission to further study solar power in Maine. The measure’s focus is largely on distributive generation — or small solar generation that’s installed home by home or at the neighborhood level.
Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Paul LePage was also urging lawmakers Tuesday to take action on the energy front this year.
The governor took aim at Maine’s wind energy industry, saying the growing production of wind power in the Pine Tree State is doing little to lower ratepayer costs, noting energy prices increased significantly in 2013.
“Our energy prices are becoming more expensive for businesses competing across the world, and the Maine people are spending more of their disposable income on energy,” LePage wrote in a message to the Legislature. “Maine’s energy policy has been focused on streamlining wind development that is almost completely contracted with southern New England states. This is not helping Maine lower electricity prices or assisting Mainers with their high heating costs.”
Patrick Woodcock, the director of LePage’s Energy Office, said the governor opposes setting new goals for solar power in Maine because the legislation doesn’t necessarily move the state toward lower-priced energy for homeowners and businesses. Woodcock said an arbitrary goal for solar generation is like picking an arbitrary way to lose weight as part of a New Year’s resolution.
Woodcock said if the goal is to lower energy prices and improve the environment, then lawmakers should set out to do that by looking at a broad set of solutions and then determine which will work best for Maine.
“The objectives outlined by the proponents today, I agree with,” Woodcock said. “The question, though, is, ‘Is this bill the right method to carry out those objectives?'”
He said Maine law was already littered with arbitrary goals, including a goal to have 2,000 megawatts of wind-energy-generating capacity installed by 2015 — a goal the state is clearly not on track to achieve.
Woodcock also said the free market may be the best route for determining which sources of energy would advance and which would not.
But some lawmakers on the panel took umbrage with that position, noting the fossil fuel industry has long been subsidized by government.
Woodcock explained that targets like those spelled out in the 11-state Regional Green House Gas Initiative set goals for CO2 emissions reductions but doesn’t prescribe the best way to get there.
“The reason we have most of our environmental law that’s currently on the books is because traditionally the free market has done a pretty poor job of protecting the environment, and it has put us in the position where we are debating these issues here,” Rep. Ryan Tipping-Spitz, D-Orono, said.
Tipping-Spitz said the bill before them is actually “a pretty good attempt to build a system where we have metrics. We are setting goals and then putting in place a system where we can actually measure how well we are doing.”
But Woodcock said the goal should be to set “clear policy based on what you are actually trying to achieve.”
Meanwhile, a release from LePage’s office Tuesday detailed price increases, noting average wholesale electricity prices were up 57 percent in New England and propane prices had jumped 22 percent just from the start of the home-heating season in October 2013.
LePage also noted that the average price of heating oil Tuesday was $3.81 per gallon and that 70 percent of Maine homes depend on that fuel for heat.
“Maine can become more competitive if we open our state policies to competition, invest regionally in strategic infrastructure and accelerate a transition to more affordable heating systems,” LePage wrote. “The situation requires all of us to do our part to change Maine’s energy trajectory.”
Some Republican lawmakers Tuesday were also quick to note that while many people point to Germany as being a leader in solar and wind in Europe, they fail to note Germany still has some of the highest-priced electricity in Europe. The country also saw an increase in fossil fuel consumption and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions in 2013, Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, said.
Harvell said, if Germany, like the U.S., had access to cheap natural gas, they would likely abandon most of their efforts to generate electricity with renewables.
“Why would a country that’s been reducing its carbon emissions and has access to cheap natural gas be following a country that has neither of those two variables in play?” Harvell asked.
Lawmakers in support of the bill said they were more focused on where Maine is on solar.
“Can we get sort of from the starting gate for solar and do some catch-up with other states around New England that are starting to take advantage in the same kind of ways?” Sen. Jim Boyle, D-Gorham, another co-sponsor of the bill, asked.