Maine activists push solar power, energy efficiency bills

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Environmental advocates called on the divided Maine Legislature on Thursday to back a series of bill this session they say will expand the use of solar power, help residents cut their heating bills and bolster wildlife protections.

The six-bill package outlined by the Environmental Priorities Coalition includes measures that would provide incentives for solar power investments, a $30 million bond to help families pay for home energy efficiency upgrades like insulation and heat pumps and add several species to the endangered list.

While Republican Gov. Paul LePage has clashed with environmental groups in the past over efforts like increasing solar power, the group emphasized their desire to find common ground this year. Advocates stressed that they will also stand firm against any attempts to walk back laws they believe provide vital environmental protections.

"Make no mistake: We will defend against any attempts to weaken or dismantle past progress," said Maureen Drouin, executive director of the Maine Conservation Alliance.

The solar measure would remove the cap on the number of people who can co-own a project, which is a barrier for people who want to make such investments, said Dylan Voorhees, clean energy and global warming project director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine. It would also provide renewable energy credits to reduce projects' costs.

Advocates say promoting solar power will not only help the environment but also spur economic growth by creating good-paying local jobs in a state where many are being outsourced.

"Solar jobs do not get shifted overseas," said Vaughan Woodruff, owner of Pittsfield-based Insource Renewables.

The proposal differs from a bill LePage vehemently opposed last year that would have restored a program that provided rebates for people who buy solar power systems. The governor, who has made lowering energy costs a priority since taking office, vetoed it because it would have added roughly 60 cents a year onto Maine residents' utility bills.

The group is also promoting a bill introduced by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife that would add the black-crowned night heron, little brown bat, Northern long-eared bat and others to the endangered list and change the classification of other species. Other measures would provide bonds to help communities upgrade stream crossings and support funding for programs that assist farmers and lobstermen.

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