Why ‘Maine won’t wait’ on climate action and what the rush means for solar developers

Maine state house

In 2019, Maine’s Governor Janet Mills addressed the United Nations, laying out a plan for the state to reach carbon neutrality by 2045. When compared to Maine’s sister states that have been working for the last decade to establish renewable energy markets to assist with reaching similar carbon neutrality goals, this was an aggressive approach. In her address, Governor Mills established a plan to invest in renewable energy from sea to land; investments that have come to fruition since that address.

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In the last year, Maine has announced, expanded and partnered with the United Kingdom to advance the research and development of Floating Offshore Wind Platforms. In December, Governor Mills released the state’s climate action plan aimed to create economic opportunities for businesses and industries to invest in clean energy growth. All this momentum towards clean energy means one thing for solar developers: opportunity.

With Massachusetts’ prolonged delay in releasing and approving its expanded Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (“SMART”) program, Maine is showing that it wants to move, and move quickly, to set up a strong, competitive solar market to help it reach its ambitious clean energy goals.

Developers may find that land siting in Maine is easier to navigate than under Massachusetts SMART. Land use has been a contentious topic since the beginning of SMART and the introduction of stricter land use regulations has left some projects in the SMART pipeline unviable. Initially, the updated SMART regulations enhanced land use restrictions, precluding solar development on a majority of open space and forested land. Following strong reactions from solar stakeholders, Massachusetts rolled back its restrictions regarding critical natural landscape and relaxed the requirements for existing projects to be grandfathered.

Despite these changes, the new SMART regulations still make a large portion of Massachusetts land ineligible for development under SMART, increasing the siting burden for newer projects that cannot meet the grandfathering requirements. Currently, Maine does not have blanket restrictions on land use, and instead requires permitting at the local level. Therefore, Maine projects may find a friendlier atmosphere allowing land owners, especially farmers, more freedom to decide how to use their land or take advantage of dual use projects.

Developers should remain cautious when looking to expand into Maine’s new and motivated solar market.

  • Barriers still exist to siting,
  • infrastructure capabilities makes siting larger projects closer to the electricity grid more competitive,
  • land and wildlife protections may require developers to think creatively, and
  • local constituent concerns may also add a risk to successful project development.

Maine currently does not have solar regulations that provide a straightforward compensation structure or incorporate land use restrictions. Siting and permitting is currently governed at the local town planning and zoning level, but state officials envision that an inclusive process to create incentives and regulations to guide solar development will be forthcoming in the new year.

Given the enthusiastic support Maine is providing to clean energy development, the benefits of being a first mover in this nascent market may still outweigh the risk.

Tanya M. Larrabee is an attorney at Boston law firm Sherin and Lodgen. She represents renewable energy clients in the acquisition, development and financing of solar, wind and energy storage projects, including advising on state incentive programs.

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