It’s not often that utilities, lawmakers, and solar advocates all support a solar plan.
But when they do, the governor opposes it.
At least, that’s what’s happening in Maine, where Republican Gov. Paul LePage won’t back a plan that supporters say would create 800 solar jobs and lower electricity bills across the state.
The legislation would increase Maine’s solar capacity from 20 megawatts (MW) to 248 MW over the next five years. Nearly half of the new capacity would be on homes and small businesses, with about a quarter coming from commercial and community installations, and the rest going to utility-scale development.
The proposal, developed by a coalition of stakeholders, is expected to head to the legislature sometime next week, and it could mark an about-face for the northern state. Maine has one of the lowest rates of solar adoption in the country. In 2015, the state installed only about 6.5 MW of capacity, while the country added more than 1,000 times that amount: 7.3 gigawatts. And, no, it’s not because of Maine’s winters. Vermont, Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts all ranked in the top 15 for installations last year. Germany, which is even farther north than Maine, is considered a solar superpower.
Yet Maine’s development has languished — and it’s largely because of the governor’s office.
“He dislikes solar and wind,” Beth Ahearn, the political director for Maine Conservation Voters, told ThinkProgress. “He thinks the answer is all in natural gas and hydropower.”
LePage’s opposition to solar is well-documented.
Two years ago, LePage vetoed a bill that asked the public utilities commission to analyze the cost of solar net metering (though in a two-thirds vote, the legislature overruled the veto). The following year, LePage vetoed a bill that directed Maine’s two investor-owned utilities, consumer advocates, solar installers, and environmental advocates to come up with a plan for solar. The legislature overrode that veto, as well.
So now there is a plan, which LePage opposes.
The new plan would lock in net metering for residential customers for the next 20 years, while requiring utilities to offer power purchase agreements to solar developers and encouraging community solar development. And Maine’s Office of the Public Advocate says the plan will benefit all ratepayers, not just solar adopters.
Maine has high electricity costs — largely because all the fossil fuel in the state has to be trucked, trained, or piped from other states or Canada — and low income levels. But solar advocates say renewable energy will help drive down electricity costs, while cleaning Maine’s grid and reducing risk of oil spills or natural gas leaks.
The governor disagrees. In his state of the state letter this year, he told legislators, “Socialists love to subsidize new wind and solar energy projects because they think it will save the earth, but that kind of expensive and inefficient energy benefits only a few wealthy investors.” (He referred to the legislators as socialists several times throughout the letter.) Instead, the governor said he wants to focus on biomass and increasing natural gas pipelines into the state.
Meanwhile, the national solar industry continues to skyrocket. A report released Wednesday from the Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research projects that more than twice as much solar will be installed in 2016 as there was last year.
A bargain struck by solar supporters and fiscal hawks in Congress this winter resulted in an extension of the 30 percent solar Investment Tax Credit through 2020, before it steps down to 26 percent for 2020 and 22 percent for 2021. That means more solar installations, which will continue to push costs down, industry insiders say.
But it also means more jobs.
From 2014 to 2015, industry employment grew 20 percent to more than 208,000 jobs — it was the fifth straight year of double-digit growth.
But there are only 330 solar industry jobs in Maine. The Natural Resources Council of Maine points out that last year, theirs was the only state that didn’t see a rise in solar employment.
“The bill will be good for jobs, good for megawatts, good for towns and property taxes, and good for all ratepayers,” said Dylan Voorhees, clean energy project director with the NRCM.
“It broadens access to people putting solar on their roofs, and it has broad economic and climate benefits, which I would say is helpful to ratepayers, who need jobs and breathe air,” Voorhees told ThinkProgress. “And I think it will lower electricity bills.”
The state struggles with a stagnant economy. New business opportunities, such as solar installation, could help it improve.
But if his track record on solar is any indication, the governor will not be swayed.
“We’ve been just waiting for this moment when the governor makes it official that he opposes this bill,” Voorhees said. “Lawmakers of both parties shouldn’t get hung up on the governor’s rhetoric and should continue to do the people’s business.”