Portland Press Herald
Maine Voices: Brunswick’s decision to tax
solar panels makes no sense
By Jake A. Plante
Special to the Press Herald
Solar energy investments should be encouraged, not penalized.
BRUNSWICK — Ben Franklin said nothing is certain in this world except death and taxes. If I had to state a preference, I’d pick death, because it happens only once and makes more sense.
As a taxpayer, I’m willing to fund quality schools, roads, police and fire protection, and other services. But taxes can go too far, as they did when our local assessor levied a new residential property tax on electric solar panels (photovoltaics). Consequently, as Charles Eichacker of the Kennebec Journal reported earlier this year, Brunswick became one of a handful of jurisdictions in Maine to assess solar.
A patchwork of municipalities around the country in 25 states are exercising their freedom to tax solar. The other 25 states prohibit or restrict such taxes, according to the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center; one of these states, California, just revolutionized solar policy by mandating solar panels on all new home construction beginning in 2020.
Maine is the farthest state from California geographically. The states are equally distant from one another on solar rules, much to the dismay of the 130 solar homeowners in Brunswick now paying higher taxes – as if life isn’t tough enough in the Pine Tree State with long, ice-laden winters alleviated finally by spring and the fear of lethal tick bites.
The premise for taxing solar is that it increases home resale values. But the issue is largely theoretical, given the scarcity of data. No one knows if Maine homebuyers care enough about solar to pay a premium for it. My better half and I didn’t when we were looking for a home. Our focus was on location. If a house had solar, its aesthetics or potential need for repairs might have concerned us.
What’s happening locally might be part of a national campaign by oil interests to impede solar development. But it’s likely just overreach. Like the guy at the shore with a metal detector, the local assessor probably scoured the taxable landscape to see what was available. Solar made a tempting target because the panels are visible from the street or from Googled satellite photos.
In our appeal, we must show that the assessor was “arbitrary and capricious,” a high bar that buttresses the assessor’s autonomous perch. Webster defines “arbitrary” as “depending on individual discretion and not fixed by law.” The definition fits our situation because the applied methodology is one of a kind, and other assessors in the state don’t think the evidence justifies a solar levy.
Estimating solar value is tricky because system efficiency and savings depend on the size, model and age of panels, system orientation, inverters, warranties, utility rates, depreciation and factors like shading and snow cover.
To collect this information, the assessor is requiring solar homeowners to fill out a technical survey. Such targeting of solar is discriminatory and opens up a Pandora’s box on home energy performance. Fairness dictates self-reporting on other home energy investments, including insulation, LEDs, thermal windows, energy-saving appliances and high-efficiency replacement boilers, not to mention woodstoves, pellet stoves and natural gas. Moreover, our assessor has overlooked solar hot-water systems and treats heat pumps as air conditioners. It gets messy quickly.
Cherry-picking solar belies smart environmental and economic planning. Solar contributes to clean air, alleviating asthmas and respiratory illnesses. It stimulates local business, especially for installers and electricians, and increases energy competition to keep prices down for everyone. In the process, solar makes places more livable, which attracts homebuyers, lifts overall real estate values and, in the end, raises more revenue for towns and cities. It seems logical, therefore, to encourage solar investments, not penalize them.
Among the states that restrict solar property taxes, a few, like New Hampshire, offer a “local option,” which transfers the decision to elected municipal officials and acknowledges the right of citizens to have a say in how they’re taxed. Lacking such an option, the Boston Tea Party comes to mind – but throwing our solar panels into the Gulf of Maine wouldn’t be good environmentally.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jake A. Plante is a Brunswick resident and author of “Uncle Sam and Mother Earth: Shaping the Nation’s Environmental Path.”