Op-Ed: Legislature should take steps to keep solar development green

Note: This is the text of an op-ed column published in the February 4, 2021, Portland Press Herald

By Ellen Griswold, Policy and Research Director, Maine Farmland Trust, and Eliza Donoghue, Director of Advocacy & Staff Attorney, Maine Audubon


Tux Turkel’s January 4 article describing Maine’s current solar development “land rush” is spot on. This new wave presents a host of benefits for Maine people–lower electricity rates, gainful employment opportunities, and of course reduced carbon emissions–but also an inherent conflict: renewable energy development takes up a lot of valuable space, space that is also needed to meet other climate goals such as growing food, providing connected wildlife habitat, and conserving carbon-absorbing forests and farmland.

The good news is that the Maine Legislature has the opportunity this session to help strike this delicate balance by crafting a clean energy “procurement” that incentivizes projects with minimal impacts.

“Procurements” are requests from the state for proposals to develop clean energy projects whose energy is fed into the mix used by Maine ratepayers. Maine’s new Climate Action Plan calls for the creation or expansion of existing clean-energy procurements in 2021 or 2022 in order to move quickly toward an electricity sector that is powered exclusively by renewable energy by 2050. Last year’s procurement was incredibly successful: solar comprised the majority of the selected projects, with highly-competitive first-year energy prices averaging at the low rate of 3.5 cents per kWh.

Projects selected as part of the recent procurement are big, with proposed projects ranging from 20 to 100 megawatts (MW). On average, it takes about 5 acres to support one megawatt, meaning these projects could be 100 to 500 acres each. That acreage adds up quickly, and as discussed in the January 4 article, Maine law doesn’t specifically guide the location of these projects to minimize impacts on land that provides other important agricultural, habitat, or climate benefits.

But that should change in the next procurement, the terms of which we hope will be decided by lawmakers this session. The procurement is a meaningful place to start because it will guide many of the larger projects coming to Maine. Projects should be assessed based not only on ratepayer benefits, but also on whether the projects avoid or minimize natural resource or agricultural impacts. Maine Audubon, Maine Farmland Trust, and other conservation partners are working collaboratively on developing such policy and are confident that it can occur without unduly burdening developers and while keeping energy prices low.

We know it can be done because it’s happening already. Some solar projects in Maine are avoiding unnecessary impacts by building on previously developed lands such as landfills, in business parks, or in farm fields in a manner that still permits agricultural production. Maine should prioritize these sites for projects, as well as other “greenfield” projects with less valuable natural resources, which our organizations are working to identify.

While the procurement law takes shape this winter and spring, we also need stakeholders to come together to solve additional issues, including how solar can beneficially coexist with agricultural production; how best to mitigate truly unavoidable impacts; how to develop best practices for planting wildlife-friendly vegetation in and around projects; and how to give a “leg up” to thoughtfully sited projects by reducing regulatory burdens. These additional policy proposals should be considered by the Mills Administration and the Legislature when it meets again in 2022.

We have the opportunity to get this right from the beginning, but we need to act now. Challenging ourselves to understand how to balance solar energy development and other important land uses will help Maine flex our problem-solving muscles as we move toward other potential developments, including offshore wind and additional electric transmission infrastructure.

As Director Hannah Pingree of the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future put it in the January 4 article, “I think we’re really just at the beginning of the clean energy revolution, so it’s important how we do this.” Our organizations, representing wildlife, natural resources, and agricultural interests, couldn’t agree more.

Ellen Griswold, Policy and Research Director, Maine Farmland Trust
Eliza Donoghue, Director of Advocacy & Staff Attorney, Maine Audubon