PORTLAND, Maine — Solar energy advocates said Tuesday that a report showing Portland behind most cities in harvesting power from the sun warrants renewed state support for solar power installations.
A study released by the Frontier Group, a think tank focused on environmental issues like climate change, ranked Portland 44th among 57 cities across the country for the amount of solar power generated per person. For total installed solar power, the city ranked 55th, ahead of Billings, Montana, and Charleston, West Virginia, both of which had less than one megawatt of installed solar capacity.
Solar supporters, joined by Democratic gubernatorial candidate and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, criticized Republican Gov. Paul LePage for vetoing a bill passed during the last legislative session that would have created a $1 million fund to continue state rebates for installing solar power systems and electric heat pump systems.
“The solar rebate would have cost 60 cents per year on the [average power] bill,” said Phil Coupe, co-founder of the Portland-based solar company ReVision Energy. “Maine is now the only state in New England with zero policy support for solar.”
In his veto letter, LePage said he opposed the surcharge. Patrick Woodcock, director of the Governor’s Energy Office, said in a phone interview Tuesday that the administration believes any rebate should come through the $50 million Efficiency Maine program and that Maine should follow the direction of another law, which asks the state’s Public Utilities Commission to establish criteria that would determine how much a state solar rebate should be worth.
“Solar has unique value properties,” Woodcock said. “Production correlates to [times of] high demand and that’s a value. What we really should do is compensate solar for what it is providing the entire system in terms of a zero-emission, peak-generating asset.”
He said the administration supports investments first in building insulation and replacing antiquated heating systems.
While the case to determine the value of solar power hasn’t opened, the PUC is considering whether the state should use its ability to acquire natural gas pipelines on behalf of customers in order to reduce electricity costs.
Coupe said competition with natural gas and support at the state level stands to slow growth in solar installations, which he said are a better value.
“The problem is we’re trying to go against heavily-subsidized natural gas … we’re getting a message from state leadership that everyone should switch to natural gas and that it’s abundant and cheap — neither of which has proven true,” Coupe said. “We think it’s a very risky and dangerous proposition to switch people from oil over to natural gas when we have solar energy in our state.”
Woodcock said the state’s financial commitment to natural gas development will depend on a cost-benefit analysis by the PUC.
“If it doesn’t provide results for Mainers, then we shouldn’t ask ratepayers to support anything,” he said.
Eliot Cutler, an independent gubernatorial candidate, has said he would create a new agency called the Maine Energy Finance Authority to invest in alternative energy.
While the cost of solar panels has dropped by approximately 75 percent in the last decade, Coupe said, the loss of the rebate will have an impact on installations in the near-term. With the rebate, Coupe said a home or business recovers a yearly average of 12 percent of the initial investment in a solar system. Without, that recovery rate is closer to 9 percent.
Zach Rand, son of Becky’s Diner owner Becky Rand, said Tuesday during the news conference outside the restaurant — which also was the site of a visit by LePage and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie earlier this month — that the rebate helped to make the business’ solar electricity and solar hot water installations possible.
“I don’t know if financially it would have been possible without the solar rebate program,” Rand said. “It worked out great for us and I hope it can keep working out for other businesses and homeowners.”
Emily Figdor, director of the group Environment Maine, which hosted Tuesday’s media event, said that more states are turning away from outright rebates, but creating some policy support for solar power is important to the economy and environment.
The bill vetoed by the governor last session would have created other incentives for solar power, including an increase in the allowable contract price for certain grid-connected solar power generators, a study requiring the state to purchase a certain amount of solar power and an increase in the amount of solar power allowed through a renewable energy pilot program.
“The rebate is one piece of it, but it’s not the panacea,” she said.
The report issued Friday indicated that cities like Honolulu, Hawaii, and San Jose, California, have adopted policies encouraging solar development that include setting specific goals, putting solar panels on public buildings, adopting local financing options and tax incentives and lobbying for state and federal support.
While supporters Tuesday afternoon noted the lack of policy supports in Maine, Coupe said, on sunnier days Portland has the primary ingredients required to boost solar adoption in a similar manner as its West Coast counterpart, Portland, Oregon.
“Over the past five years, they installed more than 15 megawatts of solar, compared with less than 1 megawatt in Portland, Maine, but our annual solar resource is the same,” Coupe said. “Both Portlands receive 33 percent more sunshine per year than Germany, the world leader in solar energy adoption.”
Last June, that country set a world record for renewable energy production, getting 60 percent of that day’s power from the sun and wind.