A modest change to the way power producers are paid is what an industry needs to expand.
The Legislature is supposed to be long gone by the time the summer heat has Mainers turning on their air conditioners, creating the year’s peak demand for electricity.
But it’s mid-July and lawmakers still have some work to do on a bill that would better harness the sun’s power and put clean electricity on the grid at the time of year when we need it most.
A bill that would make modest changes to the way that producers of solar energy are compensated shouldn’t be a controversial issue, but it is, thanks to a veto by Gov. LePage. L.D. 1504 was enacted by more than two-thirds margins in both the House and Senate – enough to override a veto – but we’ve been here before: LePage has shown his ability to turn around just enough votes in crucial situations to sustain vetoes on bills even when they had originally passed with unanimous support, so no one should take this vote for granted.
This time, lawmakers should hold firm and give a Maine industry the regulatory certainty it needs to grow.
The bill would:
• Prevent implementation of an expensive and counterproductive scheme put together by the Public Utilities Commission that would force all ratepayers to fund the installation of additional meters for solar customers, and would charge the owners of solar panels for the electricity they generated and used on site.
• Temporarily maintain net energy billing (or net metering), which gives solar producers credit against their bill for energy they put on the grid pending a report from the PUC by the start of the legislative session in 2021. The commission would be called to recommend a more sophisticated system that better reflects the real value of the power at the time that it is produced.
• Lift the cap of the number of people who could pool resources and invest in a community solar farm from 10 to 100. This would allow people who either can’t afford to install solar panels or who live in an apartment or other place where they are not practical cut their home energy bill by earning solar credits.
In addition, the bill would require the PUC to do a formal cost-benefit analysis of solar power, filling in some of the information gaps that have made the debate so difficult.
This is not the much more ambitious bill from last year, which proposed an alternative compensation plan. That measure was devised by then-Public Advocate Tim Schneider and had the support of the transmission utilities like Central Maine Power as well as environmental groups and the small businesses that install solar panels. It fell just two votes short of an override in the House, when five Republican House members who had supported or pledged to support it “took a walk” when it was time to vote, denying the compromise the support it needed to pass.
But even a less ambitious bill is worth passing. This bill would prevent something harmful from happening – the implementation of the PUC plan – and take a small step toward implementing a better compensation system. It would also create incentives for homeowners and others to invest in solar, boosting demand for the services of local solar installers. These are good jobs that can’t be outsourced, and what they earn will stay in the Maine economy, unlike the money spent importing fossil fuels.
The governor maintains his opposition to solar power, again claiming that he is protecting the poor and elderly from being taken advantage of by people rich enough to afford solar panels.
The good news is that the governor has the facts wrong. The PUC commissioned an economic study two years ago that shows that all ratepayers benefit from a more dependable grid that results from distributed generation of solar power.
The bad news is that the governor doesn’t care if he’s got the facts wrong. His opposition to solar energy is personal and political rather than economic. LePage had no problem making the poor and elderly pay a little more on their electric bills when he wanted to finance a natural gas pipeline to buy above-market-price power from failing biomass plants. He will keep fighting regardless of what the facts are.
Meanwhile, other states are benefiting from a clean energy boom created by plummeting prices for solar panels. It’s lowering utility bills for individuals and businesses while creating jobs. Maine could get a piece of that action if lawmakers – especially Republicans in the House of Representatives – stand up to the pressure and hold firm to the votes they cast last month.