by Peter Simmons of Brunswick
Times Record op-ed
The ongoing dispute between Governor LePage and solar advocates over energy policy deserves serious consideration and demands swift resolution. Although the Governor believes that solar power raises the cost of electricity and incentives only benefit the wealthy, a wisely designed solar policy will lower costs, result in cleaner air, and create more jobs.
The Governor’s first point is demonstrably untrue. Although he blames Maine’s solar policy for higher prices, solar production constitutes only about one percent of Maine’s energy mix and is not a significant factor in electricity pricing. Research done by Maine’s own Public Utilities Commission (PUC) indicates that increased solar production would reduce rates for all Mainers by decreasing the need to build and maintain transmission and distribution infrastructure and natural gas pipelines, by lowering environmental impacts, and by increasing power production when it is needed most, during peak summer loads. The Economist, an internationally respected conservative business magazine, corroborates this view: “ … green energy has a dirty little secret. The more it is deployed, the more it lowers the price of power from any source.”
The Governor’s second point may have some validity, depending on how you define ‘wealthy.’ In order to install rooftop solar, or to invest in a community solar farm, you need to have adequate capital to make the initial investment. To benefit from a tax rebate, it helps to have enough income to tax in the first place. Clearly our poorest citizens cannot afford to participate in either of these programs. However, since increased solar generation decreases costs for everyone, a fairly designed policy that encourages greater solar capacity is good policy.
The question of clean air is also important. Maine suffers from high rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases. Our air quality is worst in the summer due to interstate transport of pollution, especially ozone, from the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states. This is precisely when solar production is at its highest, allowing a reduction in emissions from fossil fuel fired power plants used to fill peak power needs. This benefits all of us, richer or poorer.
The current uncertainty in solar policy, as the Governor has pushed one way, solar advocates another, with the PUC muddling along somewhere in between, has caused a downturn in what until recently was a burgeoning solar installation industry. Despite favorable solar exposure, Maine has vastly less installed capacity, and far fewer industry jobs per capita, than any other New England state. These are good jobs, and the businesses are homegrown. It seems foolish not to encourage their growth.
Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, has introduced An Act to Protect and Expand Access to Solar Power in Maine, which would protect the embattled net metering program, provide much needed incentives to restart Maine’s nascent solar industry, and reinstate Maine’s rebate program with a sharp focus on small businesses, low-and-moderate-income households, and affordable housing. This is a good bill, and it is fair. It addresses needed improvements to Maine’s solar policy and focuses its incentives on those for whom it is more difficult to participate.
Looking at the bigger picture, it’s hard to understand the Governor’s full-stop opposition to encouraging the development of Maine’s solar capacity. We are sending billions of dollars out of state every year to pay for fossil fuel-fed electricity generation that increases our costs and degrades our environment. Wouldn’t Maine be better off if we were to keep that money instate, circulating in our economy? Can’t Republicans and Democrats alike agree that lowering costs for all, creating good jobs, and helping Maine become more self-sufficient is good policy?