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Maine Groups Push for Bill Aimed at Encouraging Use of Solar Energy

Susan Sharon
Dylan Voorhees, of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, is flanked by solar energy supporters at a State House news conference Thursday.

AUGUSTA, Maine - Business, conservation and municipal leaders, and others lined up at the State House on Thursday to encourage lawmakers to open the door to solar energy. 

The state of Maine, they say, is failing to help towns, businesses and homeowners invest in this clean energy resource and is missing out on the creation of good-paying jobs and other benefits as a result.  They're backing a bill that they say could get Maine on the right track.  

Maine, it turns out, has abundant sunshine - as good or better than states like Texas and Florida.  Over the past few years solar technology and markets have undergone a transformation around the world and in the U.S., leading to a boost in investments in solar energy and huge growth in solar jobs.  

But at a news conference at the State House on Thursday, Dylan Voorhees of the Natural Resources Council of Maine said the state is missing out and falling behind.

 "Despite a very strong solar resource here in Maine, we're basically in last place in the Northeast for the amount of solar invested per capita," Voorhees said. "Maine not only lacks specific policies to encourage solar, but it's failing to address important barriers that are limiting access to solar for Maine people."

Among those barriers, says Voorhees, is an arbitrary limit on the number of people who can co-own solar projects.  The current limit is 10.  Another hurdle is the upfront cost of solar, the initial capital investment.  Voorhees say it takes years to get a payback in Maine because of the lack of solar incentives.  

An analysis by the NRCM and Revision Energy compares similar residential solar installations in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont, and finds that it takes about 14 years in Maine and between five and eight years in the other three states.

"There's no one solution to this problem," Voorhees said, "but this bill - Rep. Gideon's bill, LD 1263 - will play an enormous role in helping increase access to solar by lowering the payback for investments in solar."

"The legislation would create a solar support system, which we very much need to overcome the high capital cost of solar," said Kim Kenway, the owner and president of Gouldsboro Solar, a company that has plans for the creation of the largest solar energy facility in Maine, on an abandoned Navy radar site in Hancock County.  

"It's a cleared 40-acre spot surrounded by a wildlife refuge," Kenway said. "It has toxic buildings on it.  It's a very unique, difficult to re-purpose parcel, but we intend to put out about 9,500 solar panels and turn the sunlight falling on the area into electricity."

Kenway says he won't be able to move forward without passage of the bill.  The project has support from Gouldsboro town officials who like the idea of adding new revenue to the town's tax base without adding emissions or pollution of any kind.  

And in a state like Maine where business and residential consumers struggle to deal with the high cost of electricity, energy consultant George Wood says Gouldsboro Solar's project would provide power to between 500 and 600 homes, at tremendous value over the next seven years.

"My preliminary analysis says it will cost rate payers about one quarter of one penny a kilowatt hour - or about $9 per year for the average Maine homeowner."

Private companies aren't the only ones looking to develop solar power in Maine.  Tex Heuser is the planning director for the city of South Portland, where local officials hope to convert a large, capped landfill into a solar farm to benefit taxpayers.

"It's a big piece of land that's got grass growing on it and nothing is happening with it," Heuser said, "and it would be perfect for a large solar array."

But Heuser says the city has struggled with economic barriers and other limitations that make municipal solar difficult. Supporters say if LD 1263 were adopted it would allow homes, businesses and others to earn additional revenue in the form of solar credits, making solar investment even more desirable.  

Last year, despite strong bipartisan support, Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a bill to expand solar power.  In his veto message the governor said he objected to putting solar "above other solutions that have proven to be more cost-effective."