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How can we make solar power affordable, viable? Pay people for it

Posted Nov. 07, 2013, at 2:18 p.m.

Should we make solar energy more affordable for more people in Maine?

This was one of the main questions considered at a recent renewable energy workshop hosted by our Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee in Augusta.

I was impressed by the leadership of the chairs, Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn, and Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, and the good questions by members of the committee, especially Rep. Larry Dunphy, R-Embden. However, I was also impressed that the room was packed full of lobbyists. Very few members of the public were able to attend.

That’s too bad, because this committee in January will decide Maine’s energy future for the next 30 years.

Every year Maine spends almost $6 billion for petroleum and natural gas. Our current energy plan is to import fossil fuel from hundreds or thousands of miles away, burn it once, then breathe the resulting pollution for the rest of our lives. Carbon from the very first fossil fuel we ever burned in Maine — coal in the 1800s — is still in our atmosphere, soon to be joined by carbon from the “clean” natural gas we’ll burn tomorrow.

Maine has a better energy option: solar. Last year my family upgraded from oil to an electric boiler, installed a solar hot water heater, bought an all-electric car, and installed solar electric panels on our roof. We buy no fossil fuel for heat or transportation. We make our own electricity. This August solar energy from our own roof powered our entire household. We even had extra energy left over, which we shared with our neighbors since our system is connected to the public power grid.

We were able to finance our system so it pays for itself. Each month we pay less for our solar loan than for the electricity we would otherwise have to buy.

Sound like a great deal? It was. Unfortunately, last session our Legislature let all solar rebates expire. Solar is now a little less affordable in Maine. While many families can still qualify for and take on a low-interest loan to make solar work for them financially, others cannot.

The question now for our Legislature is whether to make solar more affordable again for more people in Maine. And if so, how?

One idea would be to continue with the types of solar rebates and subsidies we have tried in the past. A better idea is to move forward with a new policy that works better.

Policy wonks call this new policy a “feed-in tariff.” In Palo Alto (where they understand the power of good marketing) they call it a CLEAN policy, which stands for Clean Local Energy Accessible Now. The policy would be new for Maine, but countries like Germany have been using it for more than a decade. In a nutshell, it restructures the electricity market to pay people for generating their own solar electricity and connecting to the public grid to share any extra power they produce. Over time this lowers energy prices for everyone, as we harness more and more of the free solar energy that is already naturally distributed throughout Maine.

If you are interested in making solar more affordable for more Mainers, so we can keep more money circulating in Maine, lower our long-term energy costs, improve our energy security, prevent pollution and reduce the chances of oil spills and natural gas accidents, please contact your state representative and state senator. Tell them to urge their colleagues to support LD 1085, the renewable energy feed-in tariff bill that will be voted on in January.

If you have questions about this bill or about how feed-in tariff policy actually works in the dozens of places that have it, I would be delighted to give a presentation in your community. People may contact me via email, fred.horch@gmail.com, or by phone, 522-6844. I also encourage you to do your own research and talk with your friends, families and neighbors about the energy future you want for Maine.

Your pocketbook, your lungs and your children will thank you.

Fred Horch is the legislative policy analyst for the Maine Green Independent Party, one of the three political parties in Maine with ballot access. He’s a former attorney, with a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley (Boalt Hall). For many years he ran F.W. Horch Sustainable Goods & Supplies, a sustainable living retail store in Brunswick. He now has a small sustainability consulting practice in Brunswick.

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