Lincolnville's municipal solar array near the Route 52 fire station. Credit: Josh Gerritsen | Town of Lincolnville

Maine communities are hot on solar energy. There are two dozen municipal solar projects around the state, and the number is growing quickly. Solar installations are being built on closed landfills, on rooftops and in fields.

Communities are increasingly turning to solar to save money, and to reduce pollution from energy production, a big contributor to climate change.

This growth is happening with state policies that are more hindrance than help to solar energy development. Lawmakers had several chances to stop rules that will raise costs for Maine utility customers while slowing solar energy development. Republican members of the House who are strongly aligned with Gov. Paul LePage, a staunch opponent of alternative energy, stood in the way of smarter, more effective rules.

A similar thing happened with offshore wind energy, with Maine driving away a large and lucrative project and stalling a University of Maine project.

Maine ranks last in New England for solar power development and jobs, largely because the state does not have a comprehensive plan to encourage it.

Fortunately, this hasn’t stopped communities for investing in solar energy.

The midcoast community of Lincolnville installed 144 solar panels in a field next to the town’s fire station.

Last year, the panels converted sunshine into more than 56,000 kilowatt hours of electricity — enough to keep a year’s worth of lights on at both of the town’s fire stations, the town office, the sand and salt building, the town pier, Breezemere Park, and on the sidewalks at Lincolnville Beach.

“It’s proving its worth,” David Kinney, the Lincolnville town administrator, told the BDN. “You owe it to your citizens to look at alternatives to what you’re doing. You just can’t continue to do what you’ve done in the past. We’re spending other people’s money, and we need to do that wisely.”

Residents in Tremont, in Hancock County, will soon vote on whether to install solar panels at the town’s closed landfill. The town will be given a significant discount on its electricity rates if the project is approved and built. Tremont currently pays on average between 17 and 18 cents per kilowatt hour. This would drop to 12.5 cents per kilowatt hour after the panels are brought online. The reduced electricity costs are the primary reason for the project, Town Manager Chris Saunders said.

In 2015, a group of consultants hired by the Maine Public Utilities Commission concluded that distributed solar power — small-scale solar installations located throughout the state — brings Maine benefits worth 33.7 cents per kilowatt hour (for most of the state, current electricity supply and distribution rates total about 13 cents per kilowatt hour). Those benefits come in the form of avoided costs for power from other sources, the avoided cost of transmission lines utilities don’t have to build since solar can ease pressure on the system at times of peak demand, and broader societal benefits from reliance on a clean energy source.

Towns, along with colleges and businesses that are also installing solar equipment, understand these benefits, even if many lawmakers and the governor do not.

With a better understanding for the benefits of renewable power, Maine’s next governor and Legislature can spur economic development and reduce carbon emissions. That would be a win-win for the state.

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