By Ronald B. Davis, Special to the BDN
Bangor Daily News op-ed
Emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels are polluting the atmosphere and changing the climate in ways that threaten our health, way of life, the environment and the economy. These impacts will worsen for our children and our children’s’ children unless something is done soon to reduce emissions and make a transition to nonpolluting power sources, including solar power.
It is most unfortunate, therefore, that our state, which prides itself on its clean environment, has fallen way behind the rest of New England in solar power installation. Maine is presently the only New England state without an incentive program for renewable energy like solar. Gov. Paul LePage has shown no interest in remedying this situation. Indeed, he is making moves in the opposite direction.
Despite the absence of incentives in Maine, increasing, but still small, numbers of households and businesses here are switching from polluting power sources to solar because they understand the importance to society of doing so and wish to be responsible citizens. Our governor’s proposals would penalize them.
My household is among those that have made the transition away from fossil fuels. With our 39 solar panels, we produce nearly all of the power that runs our home and local transportation, including our geothermal heating and cooling system and our all-electric car.
A problem with solar power production is that the sun doesn’t always shine, and it shines for widely different numbers of hours between summer and winter. For most solar users, the solution to this problem is called net metering. Here’s how it works at my home (and others). Our solar power production goes into the Emera grid. We meter this output, and separately meter the electricity that we use. When we produce more power than we use, as in April through October, we get monthly credits for it from Emera. When we use more power than we produce, as in in November to March, we use up some of the credits each month.
Over the year we pay for any power that we use in excess of what we produce: the net (metering) difference. We pay Emera $183.12 per year for the metering system. We are not allowed to retain credits for more than 12 months, so Emera is not debited should we produce more power than we use over the year. This system has seemed fair to us, but now it is under threat from LePage. He has introduced a bill, LD 1400, to the Legislature in response to power company lobbying.
Power companies have begun to complain that solar co-generators like me do not cover their share of maintaining the grid, but this claim doesn’t hold up when focusing on the public interest, and considering that a kilowatt hour of solar power is more valuable to grid users and the larger society than a kilowatt hour of fossil fuel power. The damages to society of fossil fuel extraction, transport and combustion to produce electricity are costly in terms of human health and negative environmental impacts. These costs are paid by the public, not the power company. Solar power does not carry this costly baggage, and therefore has greater value to the public.
The economic details underlying this argument are presented in a study contracted to Clean Power Research LLC and other contractors by the Maine Public Utilities Commission. The PUC presented this report to the Maine Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology on March 1.
Electricity is a public good that is regulated by the state. But if that public good also has negative impacts on public health, welfare, the environment and the larger economy, as in fossil fuel power production, it is the state’s responsibility to regulate in a way that reduces those impacts. Clean power, including solar, is in the public interest, but LePage’s bill would require the PUC to regulate more in the interest of power company profits than public welfare.
Ronald B. Davis of Orono is professor emeritus at the School of Biology and Ecology and Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine.