On Wednesday, Maine Gov. Janet Mills signed into law new initiatives to expand solar power and clean energy in Maine. The bill-signing ceremony was in front of solar panels at Pittsfield Solar, a subsidiary of Cianbro Corp. Submitted photo

LEWISTON — As he loaded plastic bags full of groceries into his car, Roger Potvin said he was in favor of banning them.

“I hate them,” he said, adding that so much plastic “is stupid. You hear about how they hurt the fish in the ocean all the time.”

Outlawing plastic grocery bags is good, the Lewiston resident said, “because if they’re not around, we won’t use them. The problem is, they’re so convenient. But we don’t need them. We can bring our own bags.”

Roger Potvin of Lewiston loads groceries into his car Wednesday afternoon. Potvin says he is in favor of a plastic bag ban. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

The Maine Legislature this year passed a law banning the bags. It will take effect on Earth Day (April 22) 2020. The ban was supported by the Maine Grocers Association and the Maine Retail Association, in it part out of concerns that various municipal bans would make compliance difficult. Retailers wanted consistency.

Consumers are becoming aware “that plastic pollution is big,” said Pete Didisheim of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. Worldwide, 1 million plastic bags are distributed per minute.

“We use those bags for five minutes,” Didisheim said. “Then the plastic lasts for hundreds of years.”

Overall, this recently ended legislative session was a big win for the environment. 

Legislators passed a host of new laws that boosted solar and other renewable energy production, encouraged the use of heat pumps, sought to improve recycling and reduce materials harmful to the environment and health, and to reduce climate change pollution. A ban on Styrofoam food containers begins in 2021.

In her State of the State address in February, Gov. Janet Mills said the environment and fighting climate change was a priority for her, and that her administration was working on a climate agenda. Without additional tax dollars, she pledged the state would help with the research and development of offshore wind power, provide incentives for community and residential solar power, promote energy efficiency and weatherization, increase the use of heat pumps, build charging stations and create incentives for electric vehicles, and help local and state governments become more “green.”

All of that, and more, happened after that address.

Since then, Maine has joined the U.S. Climate Alliance and withdrawn from the Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition, which wanted to drill offshore for oil and gas. Mills has announced that Maine will create the Maine Offshore Wind Initiative, a state-based effort to identify offshore wind development in the Gulf of Maine, and will work to develop offshore wind power with New Hampshire and Massachusetts in a federally led Gulf of Maine Intergovernmental Regional Task Force.

This has environmentalists giddy.

“This was the best year for the environment in a generation,” Didisheim said. “I’ve been here 23 years. It’s the most productive legislative session on environmental policy that I have seen.”

Maine’s new laws signal that the state is “moving strongly towards renewable energy, reducing carbon pollution created by energy, creating more clean energy jobs and keeping more money in our pockets instead of sending it out of state for fossil fuel,” he said.

For decades, Maine has been a leader in protecting the environment, Didisheim said. “It’s only been in the last eight years that has been put on pause. There’s been too much partisanship” and too many efforts to weaken existing regulations, from Maine’s bottle bill to protective shoreland zoning.

“We’ve seen in this session a return to the normal path of lawmakers working to protect the character of Maine,” he said.

Environmentalist Silver Moore-Leamon of Auburn called the Legislature’s work this session “a breath of fresh air after the last eight years of government rancor.”

She’s especially pleased with the passage of LD 1431, a law that will help municipal recycling programs by having the state work with retail and packaging manufacturers to reduce packaging and pick up some of the cost of recycling.

As an independent voter and citizen who worries about plastic pollution and other environmental hazards, Greg D’Augustine of Greene said he was disappointed that LD 640, a bill that would have examined the climate impact of a proposed CMP transmission line from Quebec through Maine to Massachusetts was rejected.

He was pleased to see passage of the bill making Maine the first state to ban plastic foam.

From an environmental perspective, this session wasn’t perfect, D’Augustine said. “However, it went way beyond anything we’ve seen under the last administration. The governor and Legislature deserve a round of applause for a job well-done.”

Highlights of environmental laws passed by state lawmakers in the recent session include:

Styrofoam coffee cups and food containers will be banned in Maine starting in 2021.

LD 289, sponsored by Rep. Stanley Ziegler, D-Montville, bans plastic foam food packaging, from coffee cups to clam-shell-shaped containers. Plastic foam is not recyclable and contaminates recycling streams. It is now banned in 15 Maine towns, including Freeport.  

LD 955 bans offshore drilling in Maine. It was sponsored by Rep. Michael Devin, D-Newcastle.

LD 1711 will significantly promote solar energy It is sponsored by Sen. Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro. The bill creates two incentives, one for commercial and institutional organizations, another for community-shared projects. It lifts a previous cap that limited how many people could buy into a community solar farm, expanding solar power access for low- and moderate-income Mainers. The effort is expected to create 500 jobs by expanding solar power projects to homes, businesses, municipalities and schools.

LD 1679, sponsored by Mills, directs the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to reduce carbon pollution by 80% by 2050, a goal consistent with the Paris Accord.

LD 91, sponsored by Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, restores net metering for solar power, which will allow consumers who generate more solar power electricity than they need to send that power to the grid and get credit for it.

LD 1431, sponsored by Rep. Michael Devin, D-Newcastle, will help municipal recycling programs. The new law directs the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to work with producers of packaging to reduce packaging and solid waste, and have them help pay for municipal recycling programs. The DEP must report back to lawmakers with recommendations in December.

LD 1766, sponsored by Mills, aims to increase the number of heat pumps in use in Maine by 100,000 — doubling the total number in use — in the next five years through more financial incentives, especially for lower-income households. The law takes effect in September.

“We are reviewing the law to develop a thoughtful strategy for how to achieve the goal,” said Michael Stoddard of Efficiency Maine. The state plans to “make Maine No. 1 in the nation on a per-capita basis for lowering heating costs.”

The state will be increasing incentives for Mainers to purchase and install more energy- efficient heat pumps in homes.

LD 1739, sponsored by Rep. Jessica Fay, D-Raymond, reduces toxins in food packaging by prohibiting the sale of food packaging with phthalates, or PFAs, which are considered “forever” chemicals because they don’t break down in the environment. PFAs are coming under increasing scrutiny in Maine and across the nation because of health concerns and because they have been found in sludge used by farms as fertilizer. A recent Food and Drug Administration test found substantial levels of PFAs in grocery store meats, seafood and other foods.

During the legislative session Mills also announced an initiative by her administration to use $5.1 million from a settlement with Volkswagen to develop new Efficiency Maine programs that would provide rebates for the purchase of electric cars and the installation of electric car chargers across Maine.

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