Maine needs solar energy. It also needs a plan for it

March 8, 2014 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

The state should have a better handle on this by now: How much should Maine spend to incentivize the use of solar energy to ensure the greatest return, relative to the energy needs of Maine, and how should those incentives be structured? How does solar fit within the state’s long-term energy goals?

No one really knows. That’s why LD 1252, which would re-establish a solar equipment rebate program, is kind of a shot in the dark.

We aren’t saying Maine shouldn’t have a rebate program, which certainly would have benefits. The state is woefully behind the nation in terms of installed capacity per capita, despite the fact that it gets the most sunshine of all New England states and more than half of the U.S., according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

But for Maine to be serious about its energy initiatives, it needs to act deliberately. It should know whether it’s spending the right amount relative to the specific results it seeks — whether that’s reducing carbon emissions, lowering electricity rates through reduced transmission use or supplanting other forms of electricity generation. And it should know more about what its best options are, rebates aside, to spur responsible growth in the clean energy sector.

The bill would have the quasi-state agency Efficiency Maine Trust offer rebates to people installing solar technology until Dec. 31, 2016, effectively reinstating a program revoked by the former Republican-led Legislature; the program ran out of money at the end of 2013. The rebates would be funded by an assessment on all electricity bills, amounting to about 60 cents per year for the average homeowner — or approximately $2.5 million over the life of the initiative.

The small amount is unlikely to cause anyone distress, and solar installations have benefits. Efficiency Maine determined solar photovoltaic and thermal systems installed in fiscal year 2013 are expected to have a $1.24 return on each $1 invested, over the life of the systems. There were 157 thermal and 292 photovoltaic systems installed in 2013, under the rebate program.

Solar’s value comes from offsetting greenhouse gas emissions. It’s also useful at times of peak electricity demand — when it’s sunny and hot outside. Since solar panels are located at the point of electricity consumption, they reduce the need for investments in transmission and distribution infrastructure.

Currently, Maine is the only state in New England without a solar energy policy. It doesn’t make sense to say goodbye to that industry, especially at a time when it has the potential to prosper. Between 2012 and 2013, photovoltaic installations grew 41 percent nationwide, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

We want this bill to prod discussion — and eventually answers — about the larger picture. Can the state develop solar-friendly programs that rely less on funding from ratepayers who don’t take advantage of the programs? How can Maine ensure it’s spending the right amount relative to need and return on investment?

Another bill — LD 1652 — attempts to create a way to address some of the larger questions, such as the value of solar energy generation, but the answers would come later, after the Legislature votes on LD 1252. Lawmakers should consider joining the two bills or at least ensure LD 1252 comes with a study to examine the issue more. Whatever the vehicle, Maine needs more thoughtful answers about the direction of its solar investment.

Maine needs long-term policies to develop solar power and other renewable energy sources. This bill shows the need for continued conversation and enlightenment.

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