House and Senate votes Wednesday indicate enough support to override a veto, but a similar bill fell short of an override after passing with veto-proof majorities last year.
by Kevin Miller, Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald news story
AUGUSTA — A bill that would tweak Maine’s solar “net metering” credits and direct utility regulators to further study the policy appears headed to Gov. Paul LePage with veto-proof margins – at least for now.
On Wednesday, the Maine House voted 105-40 and the Senate voted 29-6 in support of a bill, L.D. 1504, that aims to forestall controversial changes made to the policy that allows owners of solar energy systems to receive credit for excess electricity they generate. While a final vote is still required in the Senate, the margins in both chambers, if they hold, are above the two-thirds threshold needed to overcome an expected veto from LePage, a vocal net metering opponent.
The most recent version of the bill – which was amended again this week to gain additional support – would direct the Public Utilities Commission to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of net metering or “net energy billing.” The PUC would be required to report its recommendations on policy changes to the Legislature by January 2019 but would allow the commission to begin reducing the amount of credits paid to solar energy customers.
Under the current policy, owners of solar energy panels can receive credit for 100 percent of the full retail value of excess electricity they feed back into the grid. The bill would reduce that credit to 90 percent for new customers applying between Dec. 31, 2017, and Dec. 31, 2018, and then to 80 percent the following year. The bill also would allow the PUC to further reduce the credit amount for future net metering customers, but allow customers to keep receiving credits for up to 15 years.
Rep. Nathan Wadsworth, R-Hiram, called the amended bill “a small compromise” that would allow the PUC to continue doing its work. But opponents of net metering continue to argue that the policy forces all ratepayers – including low-income individuals – to help subsidize the costs of solar panels installed by wealthy Mainers.
Rep. Jeff Timberlake, a Turner Republican whose family runs a large apple orchard, questioned the inclusion of the word “farm” in the title of the bill, “An act regarding solar power for farms and businesses.”
“I don’t think there’s one thing that is about the bill and the only thing farm about it is what is generated at most farms and spread on the field,” Timberlake said. “That’s what this bill is.”
The amended bill drew praise from installation companies as well as the Natural Resources Council of Maine and other organizations involved in the debate over solar energy in Maine.
“When the PUC tried to gut solar energy programs across our state, it did so in direct defiance of public opinion and economic opportunity,” Emily Green, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, said in a statement. “Today, the state legislature stood on the side of all Mainers and righted this wrong. Good solar policy creates jobs, lowers energy prices, and protects our air and water, and we thank all those who fought for progress and today prevailed.”
The bill would effectively put on hold a controversial decision the PUC rendered this year to gradually phase out net metering for owners of solar energy installations in the state. But LePage successfully vetoed a more sweeping solar energy bill last year and blasted the PUC for even allowing net metering to continue.
LePage is widely expected to veto the latest bill. And while the 105-40 vote in the House was above the two-thirds margin needed to override, supporters found themselves in a similar situation two years ago only to see the bill fall to a gubernatorial veto. LePage has successfully flipped House Republican votes on numerous bills that he has vetoed this year.