Maine Prepares for Policy Shift Toward Clean Energy

In Brief

Maine’s renewable energy landscape is poised for big changes. Legislation passed into law in June establishes ambitious renewable portfolio standards and greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.

In this interview, Dylan Voorhees, climate and clean energy director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, explains what the new laws mean for the state, and what brought about the shift in policy. 

"The changes that we're going to see in solar development in the state in the next year or two are going to be a great example of how solar investment goes where it's welcome and where policymakers point the direction," Voorhees said.

Photo of Dylan Voorhees

Dylan Voorhees / Photo courtesy of Natural Resources Council of Maine

Maine’s renewable energy landscape is poised for big changes. According to Dylan Voorhees, climate and clean energy director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the state has not kept pace with development in neighboring New England states.

But legislation passed into law in June establishes greenhouse gas emission reduction targets and an ambitious renewable portfolio standard (RPS). In this interview, Voorhees explains what the new laws mean for the state, and what brought about the shift in policy. This transcript has been lightly edited.

CEFF: How would you describe the solar energy market's current successes and challenges in Maine?

Voorhees: For the last several years — and in some ways up until the present moment — Maine has had a very lagging solar market compared to the rest of the region. We have the lowest installed capacity per capita of any of the New England states, the lowest number of jobs per capita of any of the New England states, and throughout the Northeast you find a lot of leading solar states. That's because we’ve lagged in adopting and modernizing our policy framework to be encouraging to solar development, and until recently had a governor who was pretty opposed to the idea of solar energy.

We do have some rooftop solar in the state, there’s a small amount of commercial solar, but really the state of the market is small. Now that's where we're trying to turn on a dime, in many ways. The future looks extremely bright, and we’re anticipating a period of substantial acceleration. But certainly we've been struggling the last several years.

Maine has had an RPS for a long time, decades actually, but that standard was set at a level that was very close to existing renewable energy resources already in use. The state has had a long history of quite a lot of renewable energy built over the decades, including hydropower and some wood-based energy. But we haven't really used our RPS very effectively to drive new generation and new investment.

That also is changing with the adoption this year of an RPS standard of 80% renewables by 2030. That’s substantially more than the 40% standard that is in effect today. We expect to see that drive grid-scale investment, predominantly in onshore wind and in solar. That's a really important policy development that hopefully leads to investment. That policy also comes with a fairly substantial requirement for the state to enter into long-term contracts for some of that renewable energy. And as we've seen throughout New England and the Northeast, those RFPs that states have issued for renewables have been a very powerful tool — in combination with RPS requirements — to drive projects forward. So Maine is now on track to join that party by the beginning of 2020, with some pretty substantial RFPs to procure grid-scale renewables.

But also, Maine has made very significant progress on expansions to net metering, and requirements to procure 375 megawatts (MW) of distributed solar projects. Distributed solar projects can be up to 5 MW and those can be commercial projects, municipal projects or community solar — there's actually a substantial emphasis in the legislation on community solar projects at that scale. From a current installed solar capacity in the state at 55 or 60 MW, we could be seeing ten times that pretty easily in a couple of years. 

It's exciting to see Maine getting ready to move forward rapidly and really try to accelerate investment in solar in the state after years in the dark times. I think that is due to leadership by Governor Janet Mills and also legislative leaders. These bills passed with real bipartisan support, so that's important to recognize. It hasn’t been a partisan issue. But I think the changes that we're going to see in solar development in the state in the next year or two are going to be a great example of how solar investment goes where it's welcome and where policymakers point the direction.

CEFF: What is your perspective on the energy efficiency market's successes and challenges at this time in Maine?

Voorhees: Maine has a quasi-independent energy-efficiency administrator, Efficiency Maine, a little bit like in Vermont or a few other places that have a non-transmission-and-distribution utility running efficiency programs. They do a great job. There’s an all cost-effectiveness framework, so they're supposed to be funded through ratepayer investments sufficient to capture all the achievable cost-effective efficiency resources, at least on the electrical and natural gas side. We've struggled also with the Public Utilities Commission here in Maine taking different steps that really undermine the energy-efficiency mandate and reduce the resources that should be available. That's also changing as the political climate in the state has changed.

Two things to highlight: One would be that Maine was sort of slow to adopt statewide building energy codes. The first time that happened was in 2008, and then subsequently that law was partially repealed. This year the legislature re-established that there's a statewide minimum building energy code, and required the code board to update it to the 2018 model codes and come up with some kind of higher-efficiency stretch code that municipalities could choose instead of the statewide energy code. That's really helpful and well overdue for the new construction, residential and commercial side.

The other is Maine has been charging forward with heat pumps and beneficial electrification in the building sector. Efficiency Maine has been leading for several years — national-caliber leadership — in terms of program design and the market transformation that they've been doing with ductless air source heat pumps. So that's very exciting. Recognizing that momentum, Governor Mills set a goal of installing 100,000 heat pumps in Maine homes over the next five years, and then there was legislation to try and execute that. Maine has 1.3 million people — 600,000 households — so those are big numbers. And I think there are good prospects for turning the dial a little bit further. That's really an important in a state that is still predominantly heated with oil. 

CEFF: What needs to happen moving forward to make these goals on renewables and energy efficiency into reality? 

Voorhees: The honest answer is a lot. In addition to everything I described above, the state also adopted a mandatory limit on greenhouse gas emissions — economy-wide limits 45% below 1990 levels by 2030, and 80% by 2050 — and now has to come up with a plan to do that. So there are many different rulemaking proceedings to come that are really important on all of these things. Heat pump programs need to get adjusted and ramped up; the building code board actually has to adopt these codes; people have to get familiar with them; towns will have to decide if they want to have a more aggressive efficiency standard. 

Really, there's a huge number of implementation steps. I think if I had to pick something, it's going to be really important that the policymakers stay the course. We've been hampered by animosity to clean energy in the state, uncertainty, and funding that has come and gone. It's important, especially if we want to see private investment, to stay the course on a lot of things. That's going to require continued leadership and discipline by the administration, lawmakers and state agencies. 

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