Since Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a bill that would have reinstated funding for the state’s solar power rebate program, many critics have claimed Maine is at risk of “falling behind” other states with more aggressive incentives to expand their renewable energy sectors. But a look at solar’s track record shows that falling behind in solar production is like falling behind in horse and buggy production.
Solar power technology was invented in 1883, when Charles Fritts made the first working solar cells. More than 130 years later, including decades of favorable policy initiatives and subsidies, solar power produces only about 0.2 percent of the nation’s electricity. Given that solar is as old as most other energy sources, but not nearly as practical, Maine isn’t “falling behind” by not forcing more of it onto the grid, but rather getting ahead.
There are myriad reasons for solar’s lack of progress over the past century, starting with the fact that the sun doesn’t always shine in the same places, so it requires backup power, and even more transmission capacity per unit of energy generated than wind power. Solar power is also very land-intensive, requiring approximately 40 square miles of solar development to produce as much power (intermittently) as a single conventional power plant does.
The National Conference of State Legislatures says most large, utility-scaled solar installations still cost about 35 percent more than electricity from natural gas plants, and many other experts estimate the levelized cost is even higher.
Ample evidence indicates physical limitations, not lack of incentives, have prevented solar power from scaling up and becoming competitive in an open marketplace. These limitations mean solar has little or no chance to compete with the affordable and reliable power produced from coal, natural gas, nuclear, and hydroelectricity, each of which has far greater energy density that allows them to consume far less land.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Maine has the most energy-intensive economy in New England. Remarkably, Maine is still among the 10 states with the lowest carbon dioxide emissions. A big factor is that half of Maine’s new electricity generation comes from renewable sources, primarily hydroelectricity, with most of the rest produced by natural gas.
An electricity portfolio with high percentages of natural gas and hydropower is nothing to be ashamed of, but rather to be proud of. Many states would be more than happy to be able to rely on the most convenient, affordable renewable energy source in existence in addition to the cleanest-burning fossil fuel that also has rapidly declined in price.
Solar power is in no position to elevate Maine to any safer or cleaner status than it already has. And it would raise energy costs, use more land, and bring more instability to the grid.
Some critics say the increase in electricity bills would be modest. Even if that’s true, energy-intensive economies such as Maine’s are particularly sensitive to even small increases in electricity rates that would result from introducing alternative energy sources to the grid before they are ready. Maine would be better served by rolling back existing market-interfering programs, such as renewable portfolio standards and net metering, instead of introducing new ones.
[First published in the Journal Tribune.]