ORONO, Maine — Maine’s solar energy capacity showed strong growth in 2014, but it still lags well behind other New England states, according to a report released Thursday.
Environment Maine Research and Policy Center released “Lighting the way: The top states that helped drive America’s solar energy boom in 2014.” The report was co-authored by Frontier Group, a California-based research center that focuses on clean energy, health care and global climate change, and Environment America Research and Policy Center.
The research found that solar power capacity, per capita, rose 37 percent in Maine in 2014. That rate puts Maine 21st in the nation, well behind neighbors such as New Hampshire and Vermont, which finished third and fourth, respectively, in the country in terms of states that saw the most growth last year.
“We’ve got plenty of sunshine,” said Laura Dorle, a campaign organizer with Environment Maine, an environmental advocacy group, during a news conference Thursday at the University of Maine. “Combine that with plenty of commitment to clean energy policies, and Maine can light the way on solar.”
The report says that every state in the country sees enough sunshine to meet its energy needs, but states with policies that encourage investment in solar infrastructure tend to grow fastest.
The United States’ solar photovoltaic capacity has tripled during the past three years, according to the report. The top 10 states with the most solar installed per capita are Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina and Vermont.
Efficiency Maine provides rebates to homes and businesses that make the investment to install solar panels, but more funding would allow more families and businesses to access those rebates, argues Environment Maine.
Sharon Klein, a professor of economics at UMaine, has been studying the spread of community solar, which is built on multiple groups or individuals agreeing to invest in building, and then sharing energy produced by a solar array. Her research has found about 5,000 across the nation so far.
Critics of solar power argue it isn’t yet cost-effective and would drive up energy costs. They also argue solar panels contain heavy metals and require fossil fuels in their production.
Proponents argue solar is becoming less expensive as technology improves and acknowledge it isn’t the only solution to reducing use of fossil fuels. Investment into diverse renewables ranging from solar to tidal energy and wind energy are needed to make an effect and start the conversion away from oil, they say.
Community solar has been slow to emerge in Maine. One such farm went online in Paris in 2014. There’s another in Edgecomb. Nine other community solar projects are in various stages of completion or planning around the state, according to John Luft, branch manager at Revision Energy’s Liberty branch.
Interest in pursuing community solar projects has been on the rise in Maine. Belfast had 180 panels installed on its fire station over the winter while the town of Freeport is helping to arrange group purchases of solar panels that local residents would have installed on their properties. Bangor, Damariscotta, Scarborough and South Portland are among other cities and towns in Maine that reportedly are considering municipal solar projects.
“The state’s recent growth in solar power is good news, but it only scratches the surface of what’s possible and what’s necessary to ensure a healthier, safer climate for our kids,” Dorle said.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.