December 6, 2013

COMMENTARY: For solar power, Maine doesn’t lack sun as much as imagination

Alan Caron

Ask most people in Maine about solar power, and you get what seems like a sensible answer: “We’re too far north for it to really work here.” That also would be the wrong answer.

The world’s leading solar power country today is Germany, which sits at a latitude that runs roughly from the top of Maine to Labrador. Consequently, we get about 33 percent more solar energy than it does.

Over the last 20 years, Germany has installed more solar power than any country in the world, and it isn’t looking back. With more than a million separate solar systems in place, the country on a sunny day can produce as much as half of its energy needs with solar power. Meanwhile, we’re still daydreaming about “too-cheap-to-meter” Quebec hydropower and building pipelines for natural gas that will help as a bridge, but eventually will rise in price as we become more hooked on it.

Germany is headed toward an energy independence that we find only in campaign speeches. And with the money it is not shipping to Saudi Arabia, it’s building new jobs and houses and schools. What a crazy idea, that solar stuff.

With all its differences from Maine, Germany is like us in one important way: We both have to import oil to heat and power ourselves, at whatever the cost of the moment dictates. With three-quarters of Maine’s homes heated with oil, that’s a dangerous vulnerability, and an expensive one, costing us about three-quarters of a billion dollars per year that we export to oil producers.

Ah, say the scoffers, “We’ve got to be realistic.” We can’t have solar power here because we’re too cold and poor and downtrodden, they say. Hogwash. Portland is at about the same latitude as the French Riviera.

Our problem isn’t a lack of sun, it’s a lack of imagination. In this rapidly changing world, we spend too much time looking to the past for solutions, and trembling at the thought of doing something new or bold. Instead of building a future that makes sense for us, we hunker down and wait for some helpful accident to happen.

“We don’t have money to subsidize things like solar energy,” cry the timidistas in Augusta. “We’ve got to cut spending and be tight-fisted like New Hampshire. Then we’ll be rich!” When it comes to investments in things such as solar power, those conservative budget-cutters over in New Hampshire don’t let their ideology get in the way of their future.

While we’ve cut solar and renewable energy tax credits down to a big fat zero over the last few years, making us the last state in New England in that category, New Hampshire has moved in the opposite direction. Today, it provides $3,750 in rebates to homeowners and as much as $50,000 to business owners who install solar systems. Massachusetts and Vermont do even more.

“Renewable energy costs more than oil and gas,” the do-nothing crowd reminds us. That’s true if we look at only the short-term numbers. If solar enables us to keep our money here, instead of sending it to the Middle East, however, the real cost is a different story. The choice we have is to pay a little more so that we can to build an infrastructure that makes us independent of foreign oil, or continue our dependence but save a few bucks now. It isn’t a very tough call.

I was reminded of all this at a recent talk by Phil Coupe, co-founder of ReVision Energy, the state’s largest solar installation company. Coupe is one of the successful entrepreneurs who has been talking about the Maine economy at a series called Pioneers of Maine’s Next Economy. (See envisionmaine.org for details about future events, including the one on Wednesday with Corky Ellis of Kepware Technologies, a software development company based in Portland.)

Coupe built a renewable energy company from two guys and a truck a few years back and now has almost 60 employees, selling not only solar power systems, but also pellet wood systems. He’s concerned about how we’re exporting money for energy, as well as the millions of tons of carbon we’ve been throwing into the atmosphere. Because those so-called “greenhouse gas” emissions are tasteless, odorless and colorless, we’ve had a hard time coming to grips with what it all means. We can see garbage and sewage, and know how to handle both, but we still treat the invisible carbon emissions as though the sky is some kind of ever-expanding ashtray.

It’s long past time when Maine should dedicate itself to being a solar and renewable energy leader in America.

Alan Caron, a Waterville native, is president of Envision Maine, a nonprofit organization that promotes Maine’s next economy. He can be reached at alancaroninmaine@gmail.com.
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