This essay was published in the Portland Press Herald as a Maine Voices opinion piece on August 11, 2020.
It’s an exciting time for solar energy in Maine. Tux Turkel’s August 5th article in the Portland Press Herald set the stage well: Market conditions have aligned with recent legislation enacted to spur renewable energy development in Maine, leading to a veritable “land rush” as companies across the country and around the globe see opportunity in Maine’s relatively inexpensive land and connections to the New England power grid.
This solar development, combined with investments in other forms of renewable energy and other strategies, is essential to meeting Maine’s greenhouse gas emission reduction requirements of at least 45% by 2030 and at least 80% by 2050—amongst the most ambitious in the country.
Right now, the Maine Climate Council is developing a plan to meet those targets. But the Council’s charge is broader than emissions reductions; it must also create a plan that ensures Maine people and communities are resilient to the impacts of climate change. That includes the landscapes, natural resources, and wildlife that are essential to our way of life and economy. Cutting carbon and improving resiliency are both essential to addressing the effects of climate change on our state, but strategies to achieve them can conflict.
In addition to the hundreds of smaller-scale (less than 20 acres) solar projects that have applied for connections to the power grid, Maine has attracted utility-sized solar development, with some projects sized at 700 acres or more. The likelihood of these larger projects to unduly displace forest, farm, and ecologically significant land is high.
We will not get ahead of our climate crisis if we simply replace forests and farms with renewable energy. Working lands and other natural areas store vast amounts of carbon, have the capacity to store even more, and provide essential community resources like clean drinking water. They also support a substantial portion of Maine’s workforce, primarily in rural areas where forestry, agriculture, and outdoor recreation and tourism are economic linchpins. Some Maine lands host important species that are vulnerable to climate change and represent key areas for retaining biodiversity. Maine’s connected forest habitats allow wildlife to move and adapt in a changing climate.
Aggregated solar projects on farm land could interfere with Maine’s food security goals. Utility-scale projects, in the wrong place, could block a crucial link between habitats needed over the course of a species’ lifecycle. Mounting forestland conversion could interfere with Maine’s carbon neutrality goals. But it doesn’t need to be this way.
The good news is that there is plenty of land in Maine for us to welcome enough renewable energy projects to meet our emission reduction goals, while protecting the natural landscapes that are critical to meeting our climate resilience goals. The Maine Climate Council is contemplating recommendations that would help to strike this important balance, including improving state, regional, and local land use planning policies and regulations to retain working and natural lands and avoid sensitive habitats and habitat fragmentation, as well as increasing staffing at Maine’s natural resource agencies to support comprehensive environmental review to ensure development minimizes impacts to important natural resources.
We encourage solar developers, particularly those who are new to Maine, to meet with natural resource agencies and environmental nonprofits early in their site selection process to identify areas that avoid high-value natural resource impacts. In fact, some already are. Maine Audubon regularly meets with developers and has created easy-to-use tools to advise project development and maintenance with wildlife and other natural resource values in mind.
As with any new development, the risk to natural areas is high, but with renewable energy development, so is the reward of clean energy and new jobs. With careful planning, good conversation, and a commitment to both Maine’s emission reduction and climate resilience goals, negating that risk is well within our reach.
Eliza Donoghue is the Director of Advocacy at Maine Audubon and member of the Natural and Working Lands working group of the Maine Climate Council.