by A.J. Higgins
MPBN news story
Just over 40 years ago, the first Earth Day was celebrated in the United States. In observance of the event, the Natural Resources Council of Maine today unveiled its new 55-panel solar energy system designed to reduce more than 16,000 pounds of carbon pollution each year. The project is the beneficiary of a national subsidy system for alternative energy industries that is under attack in this election season.
Lisa Pohlmann has to admit that the United States has come a long way since the first observance of Earth Day in 1970. She cites the enactments of the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, and rivers in Maine that no longer have to be constantly monitored for high levels of pollution.
But the executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine says many environmental goals remain unmet. “We’re in a period where we really do need to keep thinking about how to move forward and energy is a huge part of that story,” Pohlmann says.
With Earth Day approaching on Sunday, Pohlmann met with reporters outside the NRCM’s Augusta headquarters to show off its new 55-panel solar energy system. Through an arrangement with the Maine solar energy company, Revision Energy, of Portland, Pohlmann says NRCM’s new solar panel system will provide 15,600-kilowatt hours of energy annually and reduce the carbon pollution equivalent of 20 tons of coal burned at a power plant.
“You know, we have as human beings and particularly as Americans, a seemingly insatiable need for energy, for our hair dryers and our clothes dryers and our cars and our industries. And so what are we going to do about that?” Pohlmann says. “There are a number of sources of energy and we have to make choices about them.”
Solar, and ocean turbines and wind power, continue to make advances in the United States, but are not without their critics. The projects rely on the same type of federal subsidies that are enjoyed by gas, oil and coal companies. But at the federal level concerns about the economy, the deficit and the economic viability of alternative energy generation have placed subsidies in the cross-hairs.
High-profile taxpayer losses of more than half a billion dollars on Solyndra, a Fremont, California-based manufacturer of solar modules, have intensified that criticism after the firm defaulted on a federal loan.
“Now there’s been this big battle on energy,” says Gov. Paul LePage. Earlier this week, LePage recognized the R. Roberts Company in Alfred for installing the largest solar array in the state, which now provides 90 percent of their power. With 638 U.S. made panels producing 244,000 kilowatt hours of electricity, the company accounts for a 10,000-ton annual reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.
But it took federal subsides to help the industries that manufacture solar panels. LePage remains opposed to alternative energy subsidies–particularly for wind power. During a tax rally in Lewiston, LePage took a shot at U.S. Senate candidate Angus King’s former involvment in the wind power business.
“Those who are in the wind business make a lot of money–in fact a certain person who’s running for the U.S. Senate said last week that the Republican party has gone too far to the right,” LePage said. “Let me tell you what’s happened here. This same person has made a fortune off the backs of Maine people.”
But Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director at NRCM, says that subsidies are allowing alternative energy sources to become more affordable to consumers. He says those same consumers continue to pay higher prices for federally-subsidized fossil fuels processed by companies that enjoyed a banner year in 2011 with more than $100 billion dollar in profits.
Voorhees says the companies also spent more than $65 million to lobby Congress in an effort to keep those subsidies rolling in. “And that was money well spent because the oil companies received $30 in tax benefits for every dollar they spent lobbying,” he says.
Phil Coupe of Revision Energy, which installed the NRCM’s solar panels, says the federal subsidies that benefit the solar industry have helped to increase his work force from four to more than 40 employees in just 10 years.
The question of energy subsidies, and the cost of energy in general, are likely to be front-burner issues in the 2012 elections.