This editorial was published by the Kennebec Journal of Maine.
There’s an energy boom underway in this country, and it’s not in the oilfields.
Advances in solar power technology have brought down prices, putting photovoltaic panels in financial reach of millions of homeowners as well as small and medium-size businesses. There are opportunities for utility-scale solar projects — the most cost-efficient application of the technology — and for community solar farms, where people can pool resources and invest in a solar project that puts energy on the grid, earning its owners credit for the power produced that’s applied to their home electric bills.
Two percent of all new jobs in the nation — one in 50 — are in solar energy-related fields.
It’s not happening in the oilfields. And it’s not really happening in Maine, either, because political division has kept the state from modernizing its regulations.
A bill that just passed preliminary votes in the House and Senate, L.D. 1504, would move Maine in the right direction. Sponsored by Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, the bill would make three major improvements:
It would stabilize the market by keeping net energy billing, also known as net metering, in place through 2021, both for existing and new solar customers.
It would require the Maine Public Utilities Commission to study other compensation schemes that better reflect the real value of the power produced by rooftop solar installations and report back to the Legislature by the end of 2021.
It would lift the cap on the number of people involved in community solar farms from 10 to 200, creating opportunities for people to benefit from solar power even if they can’t afford a system or live in a place where it can’t be installed.
It’s important to make these changes. Maine ranks last in the region for solar jobs on a per capita basis, and it’s not because the sun doesn’t shine here. Maine is on a much lower latitude than Germany, a country that is able to generate nearly 7 percent of its power from solar (Maine currently gets less than 1 percent of its power from the sun).
Maine can’t keep up because its regulatory scheme hasn’t kept up.
The Legislature has attempted to tackle the issue in each of the last two years, coming up with a compromise plan last year that had the support of solar installers, environmental groups and the transmission utilities, but not Gov. Paul LePage, who vetoed it.
This year the PUC came up with its own version of reform, grandfathering net energy billing for current solar customers, but phasing it out for those who sign on later. The commission also required a complicated arrangement where solar users would have to install additional meters and pay transmission fees for electricity that they produced and used on site without it ever going on the grid.
If the Legislature does not act, the PUC rules will stay in place, creating uncertainty in the marketplace and stifling development in a promising sector of the economy.
As was the case last year, the really important vote will not be on the bill itself, but on whether to override the expected veto from Gov. LePage.
Lawmakers on the fence will have to decide: Is Maine going to be able to take part in the new energy boom, or will our politics force us to keep sitting on the sidelines, where all we can do is watch?