Solar a Sound Investment Compared to Fossil Fuels
It was not a morning for sunny-day optimism. Intermittent snow showers pelted down and a raw wind buffeted us as we stood in a long-abandoned pasture.
Yet strangely, we felt warmed by a sense of possibility. After multiple tries, our fledgling town energy committee had discovered a site that could work well for the municipal solar array we envisioned.
All across Maine, municipal representatives, business leaders and homeowners are considering solar energy, recognizing the great potential here for localized generation.
What happens with the final legislative vote on Maine’s pending solar bill matters a great deal – and not just to those of us with visions of solar arrays dancing in our heads.
This bill, which promises a tenfold increase in solar production within the state by 2022, would help Maine embrace local energy and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. It could help staunch the flow of $5 billion exported each year in fossil fuel payments.
The upcoming vote represents one of those “two roads” moments that poet Robert Frost made famous. Maine may not have this opportunity again. In fact, if this bill fails, the Public Utilities Commission (all Gov. Paul LePage appointees) could reform the current net-metering system and effectively end all state incentives for solar.
The vote that legislators cast, attempting to override the governor’s veto, will indeed make “all the difference” – miring Maine deeper in a fossil fuel tar-pit or taking us markedly closer to a more sustainable future.
Those who oppose the solar bill contend that it might add up to 80 cents a month to electric bills. If this proved true, it would cost each Maine household $9.60 annually. Divide that figure by 2.34 persons per household (Maine’s recent average according to the U.S. Census) for an annual solar surcharge of $4.10 per Maine resident.
Why would an industry doing as well as solar – with 123 percent growth rate over the past six years – need even that limited assist from electricity ratepayers? Despite impressive growth, the solar industry still occupies the smallest of slivers in the U.S. energy pie. It must compete in an energy landscape dominated by fossil fuels, which represent more than half of that pie.
Globally, fossil fuels are subsidized at a rate of $10 million a minute, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – a figure the IMF has revised upward due to “harm to health from pollution exposure” and new “data on emissions and the damage they cause.” A 2015 IMF survey reports that the U.S. government alone provides $700 billion a year in subsidies to fossil fuel companies, which translates to $2,000 each year from every American.
That staggering sum goes to oil and gas corporations that have demonstrably lied about climate change and that pollute our air and water (to such a degree that drinking water now catches fire in some communities with heavy natural gas fracking).
Subsidies encourage corporations to exploit fossil fuel reserves that need to stay in the ground if we want to maintain a livable planet. Eighty percent of fossil fuel reserves, according to the International Energy Association, must remain untouched to avoid driving average global temperatures up more than 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F), a widely recognized tipping point for climate change.
Seven years ago, President Obama and other world leaders made a pledge to end fossil fuel subsidies. With oil prices low, this would be an opportune time to act on that long-overdue commitment.
LePage argues vociferously against renewable energy subsidies, but is conspicuously quiet about the huge economic and ecological tab for fossil fuels. Perhaps he’s silent because subsidies work both directions. Government subsidizes energy corporations, and corporations – in turn – subsidize the campaigns of elected officials.
Koch Industries, for example, has exerted its tremendous financial clout to influence energy policies across the U.S., including in Maine (as documented in a 2013 report by several Maine nonprofit organizations). For a humorous take on Koch Industries’ sobering reach, see Jon Stewart’s response to their buying ad time on his former show.
The magnitude and impact of fossil fuel subsidies cast Maine’s solar bill in a new light. There’s a clear need for reform of energy subsidies, but where do we begin?
Do we start with an annual fee under $5 assessed on Maine residents for a clean and secure form of energy that can help combat climate change? Or do we tackle the $2,000-plus annual subsidy each American citizen pays to companies threatening our health, jeopardizing national security and inciting atmospheric upheaval?
The answer is self-evident. Until the federal government reduces fossil fuel subsidies and levels the energy playing field, we need to give solar our full support in the State House and throughout Maine.
© Marina Schauffler, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.