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July 22, 2016

Report: As solar explodes nationwide, Maine lags

A new report from Environment Maine Research and Policy Center finds that with one solar panel in the state for every 17 people, Maine is falling behind a majority of states in an annual ranking of solar power capacity, despite having the technical potential to produce 96 times as much electricity from solar power as the state consumes each year.

In this year’s ranking, according to the study, Maine dropped to 27th in per-capita solar capacity and 34th in total solar capacity per capita, after ranking 24th and 29th, respectively, in both categories last year.

The 39-page report shows the states that ranked the highest for solar per capita were those with policies that allow increasing numbers of homeowners, businesses, communities and utilities to “go solar,” not necessarily the ones with the most sunshine. The top 10 solar power states are Nevada, Hawaii, California, Arizona, North Carolina, New Jersey, Vermont, New Mexico, Massachusetts and Colorado.

In the six New England states’ ranking for cumulative solar capacity, Maine lags behind Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire and is only slightly higher than Rhode Island.

“The question is: will Maine capitalize on the growing clean energy economy with more clean energy and more local jobs, or will we fall further behind?” Owen Mansfield, campaign organizer with Environment Maine, said in a release announcing the study. “We’ve got plenty of sunshine but we need leadership at all levels with a commitment to clean energy policies.”

“While Maine saw continued solar power growth during 2015, the report found it still lacks important policies like state tax credits and rebates,” Environment Maine said in its release. “Maine’s net metering policy has driven much of the growth of solar power in Maine, but could be at risk of being eliminated at the Maine Public Utility Commission, an effort pushed by Gov. Paul LePage and fossil fuel interests. An attempt to legislate a higher goal for solar power and new rules for crediting solar users in Maine failed after a veto by Gov. LePage during the legislative session.”

The report noted that many pro-solar policies remain in the 10 leading-edge states, which make up 88% of the nation’s solar capacity but less than one-third of its population. All have renewable energy requirements and nine have strong laws to allow solar customers to connect to the electricity grid, it noted.

Solar energy leads the way

Other findings in the report:

· Solar energy is expected to be the leading source of new utility-scale electric-generating capacity in the United States in 2016.

· In February 2016, the United States saw its one-millionth solar installation, compared to just 10,000 installations in 2003.

· U.S. solar energy capacity doubled from 2013 to 2015.

· California now generates the equivalent of nearly 8% of the electricity it uses each year with solar energy.

The report also identifies policy shifts and proposals undertaken by some states and utilities that could slow future growth in solar energy. Among the examples:

· Nevada, which now holds the No. 1 ranking for solar capacity per capita, eliminated retail net metering in 2015 and imposed higher charges on solar customers. Net metering guarantees owners of solar systems a fair return for the electricity they supply to the grid by crediting them with the value of that electricity at the retail rate.

· Rooftop solar installations have slowed in parts of Arizona due to new demand charges imposed by a regional utility on its solar customers while similar charges proposed by two other utilities are under review by the state’s regulators.

· In 2015, at least 13 utilities proposed the imposition of demand charges on their customers, which can reduce the economic viability of rooftop solar installations.

In Maine, proposed legislation developed by stakeholders that included environmental groups, Central Maine Power, Emera Maine and a number of Maine solar energy companies would have replaced retail net metering for rooftop solar customers with a market-based incentive program that was widely regard as innovative in its balancing of sometimes competing interests. But Gov. LePage vetoed the bill and lawmakers failed by two votes to overrule his veto.

The incentive plan, according to UtilityDive, was designed to grow Maine’s installed solar capacity from its current 19.4 megawatt level to 196 MW by 2021 by supporting growth of the most valuable solar opportunities in each market segment.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission is currently reviewing net energy billing, a process closely monitored by solar advocates and customers since it could lead to changes in the policy.

Environment Maine’s report ends with the recommendation that local, state and the federal governments adopt policies that will spur the continued growth of solar energy “consistent with achieving a rapid transition to 100% renewable energy.”

“Solar power can play a major role in the biggest step our country has ever taken to address climate change while also creating local jobs,” Environment Maine’s Mansfield said in a written statement. “That’s why our state officials should ensure we become leaders, not laggards, when it comes to clean energy.”

Read more

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