So, why solar?  Out of all of the available renewable energy options (including wind, biomass, ocean power, etc.) and, for that matter, conventional options (natural gas, oil, coal, nuclear) why are we in the business of solar and why should Northern New England implement solar as the solution to our energy insecurity?

Because solar is plentiful.  See the chart below:

A chart comparing relative sizes of resources for major forms of energy. Solar is larger than all of them put together.

While fossil fuels, and even other renewables, are finite, enough solar energy falls on the earth’s surface each minute to meet world energy demand for an entire year. Graphic Source: Perez, R. and M. Perez, A Fundamental Look At Energy Reserves For The Planet

OK, so – there is a lot of solar energy that hits the earth. But is there really enough sun in Maine for solar to offset my energy needs?

The answer is absolutely yes! Here’s why…

Insolation is the amount of solar energy hitting the earth’s surface and is measured in kW-hr/m2/day. The National Renewable Energy Lab has assembled worldwide insolation data to learn how much sun falls in a particular location so that one can draw a reasonably accurate conclusion as to the amount of solar energy that can be harvested on an annual basis. Below is a map that shows how the available solar insolation in Maine compares to both Texas and Germany:

Chart illustrating relative amounts of solar insolation throughout Texas, Maine, and Germany. New England solar insolation is similar to areas of Texas, and far greater than that of Germany.

Germany is a world leader when it comes to solar, yet Maine receives more sun!

If New England gets roughly 30% more annual sunshine than Germany, why are Maine and New Hampshire so far behind implementing available renewable technology?

A Matter of Priorities

German Solar Policies

Germany has a powerful government incentive program that financially rewards people and businesses who invest in renewable energy.  There is a national “Energiewende” movement with strong buy-in on the local and national level with a set of ambitious renewable energy goals and policies to support them.  The cornerstone of these, for solar, is the ‘Feed-in Tariff’ law which requires utilities to pay a premium to any home or business that generates clean renewable energy, allowing private renewable energy investors to finance solar investments and expect modest returns.

The public benefit of this private investment in renewable energy is greater stability to the electric grid, reduced carbon and other forms of air emissions, and, in the long term, very reasonable rates for clean electricity.  The bulk of the investment in Germany comes from individuals (often farmers) or from small solar co-operatives where a group purchases and operates a solar project as a group.

New England Solar Policies

In the United States, there has been no similar national movement to drive the adoption of renewable technology.  Various states have made progress on the local level, and they are reaping the benefits of those forward-thinking policies.  For example, California is set to handily meets its goal of 33% renewable electricity by 2020, and, closer to home, Massachusetts is one of the top 5 solar states in the USA thanks to policies like a carbon-credit trading system (SRECs).  In fact, solar adoption in Massachusetts has grown so quickly that Gov. Devall Patrick was forced to increase his solar adoption goals after his previous goal (250MW) was met 4 years early.

At this writing, Maine has no policy regarding solar adoption, nor policies beyond retail net metering to support them.  New Hampshire is in a better situation, thanks to the efforts of the NH PUC’s Sustainable Energy Division who manage a successful and very popular state rebate program for solar energy installations.

While lawmakers struggle to keep pace with innovation, the core technology behind solar has improved rapidly.  From 2009-2011 solar electric modules declined by over 50%, reducing their ‘sticker price’ such that they have become increasingly competitive with conventional power with smaller levels of government support (though, it should be said, traditional forms of energy enjoy huge amounts of subsidies, in the form of both direct subsidies, as well as indirect subsidies such as a free pass to dump carbon pollution into the atmosphere).