AUGUSTA — Solar energy advocates, state lawmakers and companies that install solar-energy systems said Tuesday that Maine should catch up with the rest of New England.
The group, including the Natural Resources Council of Maine, touted a bill that restores a $2,000 rebate for those who install solar-energy systems.
But state Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, said the bill was only the first small step in what should be a bigger effort to diversify the state’s energy portfolio.
“Just like a financial portfolio, energy diversity provides stability and it also provides security over the long term,” Gideon said. “It is especially valuable for us here in Maine to develop some of the energy resources that are actually made in Maine, because that curbs the flow of energy dollars that are right now going out of the Maine economy.”
Expanding the use of home-based photovoltaic solar power would do several things, including lowering peak demand which could lower ratepayer costs over time, Gideon said.
Equally important is the effect a solar expansion can have on creating green-energy jobs in Maine’s economy, Gideon said.
To that point, Fortunat Mueller, co-owner of the Liberty-based Revision Energy, said his company, which started in 2003 with two employees, now operates from two Maine locations and one in New Hampshire and employs 60 people full time.
For homeowners the news on solar is good, too, said Mueller who noted that the cost of solar installations over the past five years have dropped by 70 percent, triggering record growth in solar energy in the U.S. in 2013 with 4,300 megawatts installed.
“That’s enough to power about 850,000 homes,” Mueller said. He said the industry employed 143,000 full-time employees in 2013, a 13 percent increase from 2012.
“This incredible market-transforming growth is happening because solar energy doesn’t pick winners or losers,” Mueller said. “It’s available to anyone who wants to make an investment to control their long-term energy costs.”
Homeowners who took advantage of the state’s rebate program before it was eliminated said the rebate made it possible for them to finance their solar systems.
Peter Proeller of Rockland, a carpenter, said his setup, which powers his workshop and home, cost about $5,000, and a $1,500 rebate from the state set his power retrofit in motion. Proeller said the solar provides all of the power for his shop and home, and while he previously paid about $45 a month for electricity, he now pays $9.40 — the minimum charge to be hooked into the grid.
He said he came to Augusta on Tuesday to urge lawmakers to restore the program because it would not only help lower energy costs for individuals but it was one local way to tackle the overwhelming issue of climate change.
Dylan Voorhees, NRCM’s clean-energy director, said it may seem ironic to be talking about solar power as another winter snowstorm was looming, but the state actually has better solar resources than many states, including some in the South.
“I think it’s an astonishing figure that a solar panel in Maine will produce 10 percent more energy than the same solar panel in Houston,” Voorhees said. “And that’s because Maine actually has a fantastic solar resource. The sun shining in Portland, Maine, is going to be more productive than one in Houston and almost as productive as one sitting in Miami, Fla.”
Voorhees said it was important to recognize that resource, but the question remained: What would Maine do to tap that resource?
He noted that per-capita solar-energy production in Maine was the second lowest in New England, behind Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire and only slightly ahead of Rhode Island.
“It makes so much sense and it is ultimately cheaper to put energy where we need it, that’s right there on our homes and our businesses,” Voorhees said. “It’s also available when we need it. Those hot summer days and months are when we need power the most. It’s when our electric grid is the most stressed.”
Voorhees said reducing that peak demand by increasing available distributive sources of energy such as solar also offsets the demand for the dirtiest forms of energy, including oil-fired power plants such as Maine’s Wyman Station on Cousins Island in Yarmouth.
And while many conservative lawmakers will oppose reinstating the rebate for solar installations in Maine, some, including state Rep. Melvin Newendyke, R-Litchfield, said they believe it makes sense.
Newendyke said the rebates, which are paid for by a surcharge on electricity bills in Maine, cost the average ratepayer 5 cents a month or about 60 cents a year.
“I think the rebates make sense,” Newendyke said. “Normally, I’m opposed to subsidizing, but in this particular case the subsidy is very minor — that 5 cents a month can turn into about $11 million of economic activity within the state — that’s a huge return.”
The bill, LD 1252, has been voted out of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee. The next stop will be before the entire House of Representatives, likely sometime in February.