by Andy O’Brien
Free Press news story
When fourth generation mill worker Sadie Ferreira heard the news that Verso’s Bucksport paper mill would be shutting down at the end of 2014, she was devastated.
“I was really upset by it because so many of my family members still worked there,” said the 35-year-old Bucksport native. “My dad still worked there and lots of my uncles worked there. It was such an important part of our town.… The community has definitely felt that loss. But I also felt like when a door closes, another opens, so there could be some opportunity that comes out of it.”
Ferreira had worked at the mill for five years as a planner, maintenance supervisor and reliability engineer, but she was also ready to move on. With an 18-month-old and another baby on the way, Ferreira said continuing to work 50 to 60 hours a week at the mill just wasn’t in the cards. And when the company announced that the mill’s number 2 paper machines would be permanently shut down, she could see the writing on the wall. As she was contemplating her next step, she met Chuck Piper of Sundog Solar in Searsport.
“I called Chuck to come to my house and do a site evaluation [for solar panels], and he was coming up with all of these different ideas and he just seemed like a great person,” she said. “So I said, ‘Hey, do you need any help? Because I would love to work for you.”
A Growing Renewable Energy Economy
For nearly two years, Ferreira has been one of about 400 Mainers employed in the state’s small but growing solar industry. In recent years due to a precipitous drop in the price of solar photovoltaic panels, the national solar industry has added workers at a rate of nearly 12 times faster than the overall economy, according to the National Solar Jobs Census.
Solar also has great potential to stimulate the local economy, says Bill Najpauer, planning and development director with Midcoast Economic Development District. At a forum last week in Rockport, Najpauer estimated that there are over 24,000 households making over $50,000 in the organization’s district, which includes Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties as well as some towns in Waldo and Cumberland counties. If every one of those households installed solar panels, it would bring in about $438 million in economic activity, he said. But even if only 10 percent of the households invested in solar, it would bring in $43 million to the region.
“Our area, in addition to the natural beauty that we’re blessed with on the midcoast, has one of the higher household incomes in the state of Maine, and that positions us very favorably towards things like solar,” said Najpauer.
But although rooftop solar panels have the potential to save ratepayers around $18,000 on grid electric power over the course of 20 years, the upfront costs have put solar out of reach for many. Unlike states with more generous solar incentives, Maine’s Republicans and Gov. LePage have blocked multiple attempts to renew the state’s solar rebate program, effectively hampering investment in solar and placing the state last in New England in the number of solar jobs.
“If you look at the number of solar jobs … it’s not surprising that states with a lot more solar have a lot more jobs,” said Dylan Voorhees of the Natural Resources Council of Maine at the forum. “The reason that Maine lags behind other states on solar is not due to any inherent lack of resources or innovation or skills in our population. It is because of a failure to have a clear solar policy.”
On the Cusp of Weakening Maine’s Solar Industry?
Currently the only state-level solar incentive is net energy billing (NEB), which allows homeowners and businesses with grid-tied solar arrays to receive credits for the excess energy they send to the grid. The unused credits go into a “bank” and can be used to purchase additional power from the grid for up to a year. Solar producers can then feasibly reduce their electric bills to “net zero” by banking credits when the sun is shining and redeeming them when it’s not.
But while NEB has helped facilitate the recent boom in solar, it has been politically unpopular with Republicans because it’s seen as a subsidy that is shouldered by other electric payers.
On the other side, solar advocates point to a 2015 Maine PUC-commissioned study that determined the value of solar power produced in Maine to be twice the standard retail rate per kilowatt-hour, which is what solar producers currently receive for their power. The study found that solar is much more valuable than other forms of energy because it displaces more expensive fuel sources, creates less air and climate pollution, adds more price stability and energy security to the state’s energy portfolio, and reduces the need to build more power plants to meet certain peak electricity demand times. Nevertheless, in the coming months, the Maine Public Utilities Commission, an unelected three-member regulatory panel appointed by Gov. LePage, will have the sole power to decide the fate of NEB.
“In some states net metering is in statute, but Maine is sort of unique,” explained Tim Schneider, the Public Advocate, at the Rockport forum. “In Maine it says, ‘the PUC may have net billing rules,’ which implies that they may not. So the form and the nature of our net energy billing, which is what almost all of the solar in Maine has been built on, is something that is totally under the PUC’s control right now.”
Schneider noted that when the current net metering policy was put in place during the 1990s, solar and wind were very expensive and there wasn’t much fear that the number of locally distributed energy installations would increase to the point of shifting costs to other electric ratepayers. But the rules also stated that once distributed energy projects reached one percent of a utility’s peak load, the PUC would have the authority to review it.
Last August on a particularly sunny day, NEB projects hit that one-percent threshold, which allowed the PUC to trigger the review. Fearing a showdown over NEB, a group of stakeholders including solar installers, environmental advocates, utilities and the Public Advocate reached a consensus on a bill that would have effectively replaced NEB with an alternative rate plan and increased the number of solar installations while saving ratepayers between $58 million and $110 million over the current system, according to the Public Advocate. Supporters also estimated that it would have created 800 new jobs.
However, after an intense lobbying effort by House Minority Leader Ken Fredette (R-Newport), who framed the bill as a class war by wealthier solar users against poor rural Mainers, the House failed to override Gov. LePage’s veto by three votes. A group of large out-of-state solar companies calling itself the Solar Energy Association of Maine also spent heavily to defeat the measure as it urged lawmakers to preserve the current NEB system.
“They don’t employ anybody that’s not a lobbyist in Maine,” said Schneider. “Notably all of the solar installers who employ people in Maine supported the legislation we had last time.
I think that’s a sign of where you should pay attention.”
Meanwhile, local solar advocates are hoping that the failed stakeholder bill will get revived when a newly elected Legislature begins its session in January, which is also when the PUC will likely release its new NEB rules. Members of the public have until this Friday, July 22, to file their comments with the PUC.
“I think … if they [the PUC] work as fast as they can we’ll see new rules in time for the new Legislature to upend them in the next legislative session if they so choose,” said Schneider. “That process is an opportunity for people who care about solar in Maine to speak and have a say.”
It’s a battle that could also determine who controls the solar market of the future — independent rooftop solar power producers or out-of-state corporations and Wall Street investors. In comments on the stakeholder bill last March, PUC Chairman Mark Vannoy urged legislators to “emphasize larger grid-scale and community solar projects” rather than small roof-top installations because “larger solar projects, due to economies of scale, can provide a large amount of solar generation at a significantly reduced price.” It remains to be seen whether solar activists will have enough grassroots support to win the battle, but Najpauer ended on an optimistic note.
“In the planning profession we get excited when somebody does something from the bottom up. I think solar is one of those things,” said Najpauer. “Think about it for a minute — you are displacing a power company. Power companies are a pretty big deal. At the turn of the last century, they kind of set the political agenda. And you, every time you put up a solar collector, you are creating your own power company. That’s political power.”