We invite everyone to think strategically about Maine’s energy policy, especially solar electricity, when considering specific proposals. “We” includes co-authors Fortunat Mueller (ReVision Energy), Jay Kilbourn (Kennebunk Light & Power) and Todd Griset (Preti Flaherty). Let’s start with a vision we believe most of us share.
Our electricity would be economical, with stable, predictable costs, potentially declining over time. Maine would have control over the primary cost factors. Power production and distribution would be secure, reliable, clean and local. It would no longer produce pollutants causing health problems, and greenhouse gas emissions endangering life on the planet. It would create good jobs for Maine people The whole system would be sustainable, resilient to shocks, a boon to our economy, accessible to everyone, benefiting all of us.
If we commit to this vision, it would foster cooperation among all stakeholders and guide our work about how to achieve it. The Solar Energy Association of Maine, a broad coalition, thinks this vision encompasses two phenomena: (1) beneficial electrification, meaning transportation, heating/cooling and equipment systems increasingly powered by electricity – an “electric future” – and (2) an in-state electrical system featuring a mix of renewable energy sources, together with energy storage and demand flexibility, including solar installations of all sizes and ownership models.
Global forces are moving in this direction – toward an electric future based directly or indirectly on the sun’s energy. This should be good for people and businesses, including investor-owned utilities.
The dominant factors creating relatively high electricity costs in Maine are volatile fossil fuel prices – especially natural gas, because of worldwide commodity price fluctuations and supply disruptions, which we cannot control – and increased peak energy costs, plus rapidly escalating transmission line costs.
The antidote to these cost drivers: Invest in an electrical system featuring distributed (local) power generation, from energy sources offering long-term stable pricing. This means solar and other forms of in-state renewable energy. This is consistent with our shared vision. This would:
• Support a growth industry with excellent jobs. Nationally, one out of every 50 new jobs is in the solar industry. Maine is last in New England in solar jobs. If we just catch up with our neighbors, this could create over 3,000 good jobs. Few industries offer this potential. Innovative Maine solar installers will expand with a supportive state energy policy.
• Reduce peak generating and new transmission and distribution costs.
• Lock in stable, predictable long-term energy costs from built facilities, with the prospect of lower-cost new facilities. Solar costs are coming down.
• Clean up our air, enhancing health for all and helping the tourism industry.
• Reduce global warming, protecting Maine’s natural resource industries.
• Increase energy independence and security, based on more local control and distributed power sources.
• Keep more money in Maine by not purchasing fuel or power from away.
Achieving these benefits requires an investment perspective, and some incentives to galvanize change. This approach is consistent with established practices used to achieve a shared vision.
Consider energy efficiency. We all agree that doing more with less is desirable. Efficiency Maine and other governmental incentives have been implemented to help people along this path. The costs are shared by all utility customers to achieve the common good. Solar electricity is like an efficiency investment. It is a way to many of the same benefits, and more.
This is no new or isolated idea. We have a rich tradition whereby all electricity customers invest in the common good. This is how rural electrification happened. In Maine, homeowners help pay for camp owners to connect to the grid. Ratepayers fund pipeline costs, transmission lines, even the Public Utilities Commission and Efficiency Maine.
Fortunately, shared investing in solar can be done economically, with a high rate of return. The shared costs of solar proposals are in the millions of dollars range, compared with hundreds of millions required to fund alternatives such as gas pipelines and long-distance transmission lines. These relatively low-cost solar investments are more than offset by the benefits to everyone of solar electricity. Also, solar incentives can be seen as a bridge to the bright vision articulated, becoming less necessary as the cost of solar installations continues to come down.
As the world moves toward an “electric future,” a clean, locally controlled electric system, based on free fuel and providing thousands of really good jobs, is worth supporting. It just makes a great deal of sense to control our future this way.
This post was originally published in the Portland Press Herald and written by Steve Weems