By Jason Tessier, Special to the BDN
Bangor Daily News op-ed
A critical first step toward building Maine’s next generation economy is passing effective solar energy policy during this legislative session. Solar power expansion goes hand in hand with job growth, energy independence, lower energy costs and reduced carbon emissions.
Maine legislators such as Democratic Rep. Seth Berry of Bowdoinham and Republican Sen. Tom Saviello of Wilton understand this. They have taken common-sense approaches to solar power by introducing business-friendly bills, including LD 1504, that would create more than 750 solar jobs, according to job creation models by the U.S. Department of Energy. These are jobs that machines can’t do, and that can’t be outsourced. These are jobs that attract younger workers and give new opportunities to experienced workers transitioning from other industries. These are jobs that are being created at an impressive rate elsewhere in the country. Why not Maine?
Maine has the lowest amount of solar installed and the fewest jobs, on a per capita basis, in New England, according to the Solar Foundation and GTM Research. Yet Maine has abundant sunshine and a great need for sustainable and affordable energy production with predictable prices that can help rural Maine businesses plan for the future.
The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, where I work, is benefitting greatly from a recently installed 102-kilowatt solar array and air-source heat pumps. This system will generate our year-round power supply, including for the Common Ground Country Fair, offsetting about 85 percent of heating fuel consumption. Maine’s policy of net metering, which gives credit for energy provided to the grid, was a primary factor in our ability to move forward with the project.
Solar power arrays are working for farmers throughout rural Maine, dramatically increasing long-term economic and environmental sustainability, supporting local businesses that provide good-paying jobs, and increasing energy independence and security.
In Aroostook County, multi-generation farmers at LaBrie Farms and Smith’s Farm have gone solar because it is a reliable source of power that will save money. “We rely on the sun to grow our crops, and now we rely on the sun to produce 30 percent of our power needs,” Miles Williams of Smith’s Farm said. “Solar works for us, and solar works for The County. As a sixth-generation family-owned business, we recognize that protecting our legacy means conserving our natural resources.”
Goranson Farm, an 80-acre MOFGA-certified organic operation in Dresden, also is reaping benefits from a 25,000-watt grid-tied array, which offsets monthly electric bills of $600 to $800. “We needed a strategy to ensure sustainability,” farm co-owner Rob Johansen said. “Energy costs are a serious expenditure for us, and so becoming independent electrically had to be a part of our plan. By adding the solar array, we have invested in the farm’s long-term viability for years to come.”
Rather than allow the Maine Public Utilities Commission to move Maine backward on solar power, as its net metering rollback would do, the Legislature should ensure our state’s budding solar industry thrives and prospers. There’s no good reason that Maine should be so far behind the rest of New England in solar energy production.
The solar power legislation under consideration would help Maine’s iconic rural businesses. This would be a strong show of support for the dynamic community of new farmers in Maine, many of whom are poised to invest in solar power facilities, as soon as there is clarity about Maine’s policies on solar energy production.
In recent testimony before the Legislature’s Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology, MOFGA-certified organic dairy farmer Caitlin Frame described her efforts to secure a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant for a solar array on her farm. “We cannot proceed with this project until we know where solar policy will stand in the future in Maine. Since the Public Utilities Commission has done away with net metering, it may be financially unfeasible for us to install a [photovoltaic] system,” she said. “This leaves the energy costs of our business far more unpredictable than they otherwise would be with a PV system and net metering intact.”
Maine cannot afford to take passes on the jobs and savings that come from solar development. The Legislature should act now to pass responsible solar energy legislation, protecting net metering, reinstituting a solar rebate policy and supporting farmers and other small businesses in rural Maine.
Jason Tessier is the buildings and grounds director at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, a broad-based community that educates about and advocates for organic agriculture, illuminating its interdependence with a healthy environment, local food production, and thriving communities.