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Maine Bill Aims to Boost Solar Power Development
01/21/2014   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

The heat of the sun may seem far away on this bitterly cold day. But it was the focus of debate in the Legislature's Energy and Utilities Committee. A new bill aims to make solar power more affordable and accessible for Mainers. But opponents question the push for solar over other energy resources. Patty Wight reports.

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The new year is a time for setting goals. And Democratic Sen. Eloise Vitelli has some goals in mind when it comes to solar power. That's why she's sponsoring a bill that would create the Maine Solar Energy Act.

"In short, LD 1652 provides a pathway for increasing access to affordable, local energy, protecting our health and environment, and strengthening our economy," she said.

The bill directs the state to establish solar energy generation goals, and monitor and encourage its development. Vitelli says Maine is the only New England state without a solar incentive program, and spends about $5 billion on out-of-state fossil fuels every year.

Bill co-sponsor Democratic Rep. Paul McGowan says it's time for the state to embrace the energy that hits us every day. "I would encourage you to think about this bill as the no-brainer energy bill," he said. "This technology has demonstrated its viability around the world. It doesn't require any massive infrastructure for us to be drawing upon it."

And it will establish a vibrant industry in Maine, according to solar energy companies that testified in support. Scott Cuddy of the Electrical Worker's Union, also supports the bill. But he'd like to see even more emphasis on solar power, including the reinstatement of a state rebate program.

"This bill, along with, hopefully, some amendments, would go a long way towards rectifying that," Cuddy said, "and starting an industry that we need to have here in the state of Maine that will absolutely be an economic engine and generator for us in the future."

The director of the Governor's Energy Office, Patrick Woodcock, says his office has been flooded with requests for heating assistance this winter. He's feeling a sense of urgency. But he says he's not convinced that solar energy is the right way to meet Mainers' needs.

"The bottom line is, we should let the market determine what is the best way to meet our climate, environmental, and energy objectives," Woodcock said.

Woodcock says the bill prescribes a solution before it's really known if it will work. Maine's Public Advocate Tim Schneider also opposes the bill. He says it's too vague, and sets capacity goals with no mechanism to achieve them.

"Our concern is that these goals may become a fait accompli," he said. "They'll be later used to develop mechanisms to support these goals that were developed without evaluating costs. Since we've put the cart before the horse here, we can't weigh in to say these are good goals or not because we don't know how much they'll eventually end up costing ratepayers."

Despite any vagueness, scientists, doctors and environmentalists testified in support of the bill, saying it's an important first step for Maine to advance solar power.

And Dana Duran of Kennebec Valley Community College says Maine needs a roadmap to ensure job security. He says KVCC trained students to meet previous demand for solar installation jobs. But in 2009, Duran says, neighboring states adopted aggressive policies to embrace the solar industry and left Maine in the dust.

"The stark reality to all of this is that KVCC has trained over 500 individuals in the past eight years on solar installation, yet only 270 are still operating in some meaningful way," Duran said. "In many respects, this is due to the inconsistency of policy related to solar, which has depleted the opportunity."

Many members of the Energy and Utilities Committee voiced general support for the bill, but recognized concerns. They plan to address some of those in an upcoming work session.


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