As Maine lawmakers consider solar energy goals, LePage takes new swipe at wind power

Gov. Paul LePage speaks with reporters from his office in the State House on Thursday, Dec. 19 2013.
Gov. Paul LePage speaks with reporters from his office in the State House on Thursday, Dec. 19 2013. Buy Photo
Posted Jan. 21, 2014, at 1:51 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 21, 2014, at 7 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine is lagging behind the rest of New England when it comes to generating electricity with solar power, and the state’s position has little to do with the climate.

Lawmakers heard Tuesday that Maine gets 30 percent more sunlight each year than Germany, a European leader in solar energy.

That’s why a bill by state Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, seeking to boost Maine’s solar energy production goals into state law looks good to advocates for solar energy.

Vitelli’s bill, LD 1562, went before the Legislature’s Energy Utilities and Technology Committee on Tuesday. The committee will hold a work session and vote on the bill in the days ahead.

According to a recent report by ISO New England presented to the committee in December, Maine ranked last in New England with 2 megawatts of installed solar generation.

The state is far behind New England’s solar leader Massachusetts, which had 322 megawatts of solar power in 2013 and is on track to add another 200 megawatts in 2014. According to ISO New England, Maine’s on track to add just 0.8 megawatts of solar energy this year.

“It’s time for the sun to have its day in the sun,” Vitelli said in a prepared statement before the public hearing. “Investing in solar energy is critical to increasing access to energy, protecting our environment and strengthening our economy. It is the most abundant energy source on the planet, and we would do well to take advantage of it.”

Vitelli’s measure encourages solar energy development by establishing state solar energy generation goals.

It also promotes solar energy development, generation and manufacturing within existing state programs such as the Small Enterprise Growth Program, the Maine Technology Institute, the Maine Rural Development Authority, the Finance Authority of Maine and the Department of Economic and Community Development.

Vitelli’s bill does not come with a price tag. Instead, it asks the Public Utilities Commission to further study solar power in Maine. The measure’s focus is largely on distributive generation — or small solar generation that’s installed home by home or at the neighborhood level.

Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Paul LePage also urged lawmakers Tuesday to take action on the energy front this year.

The governor took aim at Maine’s wind energy industry, saying the growing production of wind power in the Pine Tree State is doing little to lower ratepayer costs, noting energy prices increased significantly in 2013.

“Our energy prices are becoming more expensive for businesses competing across the world, and the Maine people are spending more of their disposable income on energy,” LePage wrote in a message to the Legislature. “Maine’s energy policy has been focused on streamlining wind development that is almost completely contracted with southern New England states. This is not helping Maine lower electricity prices or assisting Mainers with their high heating costs.”

Patrick Woodcock, the director of LePage’s Energy Office, told committee members that the governor opposes setting new goals for solar power in Maine because the legislation doesn’t necessarily move the state toward lower-priced energy for homeowners and businesses. Woodcock compared setting an arbitrary goal for solar generation to picking an arbitrary way to lose weight as part of a New Year’s resolution.

Woodcock said if the goal is to lower energy prices and improve the environment, then lawmakers should consider a broad set of solutions and determine which will work best for Maine.

“The objectives outlined by the proponents today, I agree with,” Woodcock said. “The question, though, is, ‘Is this bill the right method to carry out those objectives?’”

He said Maine law was already littered with arbitrary goals, including a goal to have 2,000 megawatts of wind-energy-generating capacity installed by 2015 — a goal the state is clearly not on track to achieve.

Woodcock also said the free market may be the best route for determining which sources of energy would advance and which would not.

Some lawmakers on the panel took umbrage with that position, noting the fossil fuel industry has long been subsidized by government.

“The reason we have most of our environmental law that’s currently on the books is because traditionally the free market has done a pretty poor job of protecting the environment, and it has put us in the position where we are debating these issues here,” Rep. Ryan Tipping-Spitz, D-Orono, said.

Tipping-Spitz called Vitelli’s bill “a pretty good attempt to build a system where we have metrics. We are setting goals and then putting in place a system where we can actually measure how well we are doing.”

But Woodcock said the goal should be to set “clear policy based on what you are actually trying to achieve.”

Meanwhile, a release from LePage’s office Tuesday detailed energy price increases, noting average wholesale electricity prices were up 57 percent in New England, and propane prices had jumped 22 percent just from the start of the home-heating season in October 2013.

LePage also noted that the average price of heating oil Tuesday was $3.81 per gallon, and 70 percent of Maine homes depend on that fuel for heat.

“Maine can become more competitive if we open our state policies to competition, invest regionally in strategic infrastructure and accelerate a transition to more affordable heating systems,” LePage wrote. “The situation requires all of us to do our part to change Maine’s energy trajectory.”

Some Republican lawmakers Tuesday were also quick to note that while many people point to Germany as being a solar and wind energy leader, they fail to note Germany still has some of the highest-priced electricity in Europe. The country also saw an increase in fossil fuel consumption and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions in 2013, Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, said.

Harvell said, if Germany, like the U.S., had access to cheap natural gas, the country would likely abandon most of its efforts to generate electricity with renewables.

“Why would a country that’s been reducing its carbon emissions and has access to cheap natural gas be following a country that has neither of those two variables in play?” Harvell asked.

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