The PUC tax on energy produced and used in the home will take effect as an election approaches.
by Seth Berry
Portland Press Herald op-ed
AUGUSTA — Since Aug. 2, I’ve been asked many times: What happened to this year’s solar bill? And why? Despite overwhelming public support, on the last day of our legislative session, a bill protecting Mainers’ ability to create local jobs and clean energy fell short by just three votes.
Tux Turkel’s recent article does an excellent job describing the onstage events that day. Unable to convince us, the anti-solar lobby worked to confuse us.
Less visible, but also damaging, was the backstage drama. Bear with me as I explain a little bit about process. Because a two-thirds vote of those in attendance was required to override Gov. LePage’s veto, there was great pressure on moderate House Republicans to flip their votes or to be “absent.”
The most pivotal votes were those of two House Republicans who serve with me on the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, and who had themselves put forward and shaken hands on the bill’s amended, compromise language.
One, Rep. Lance Harvell of Farmington, was legitimately unable to attend because of a work obligation.
The other, the ranking House Republican on energy matters, Rep. Nathan Wadsworth of Hiram, reversed his position in the final days before the vote.
Here’s what I said to House Democrats and independents the morning of the vote: Attendance was not in our favor, partisan debate was unlikely to help and the outcome would likely come down to a 1- to 3-vote margin, depending on Wadsworth’s still-unknown position.
I also said that, if we lost, job-creating, local, clean energy would win in the end. I still believe this.
Why? Because the “triple wins” of rooftop solar (local jobs, clean energy and ratepayer savings) remain clear to most legislators and certainly our constituents. Our bill garnered the overwhelming support of the Republican-controlled Senate and just under two-thirds of the House. We earned the vote of every Democrat, every independent and many Republicans.
This support was no accident. We Mainers believe in our right to create clean energy and local jobs. We understand that smaller, distributed renewables like solar help all of us because they reduce the need for Central Maine Power and Emera to continue building more and more-costly new poles and wires. We chafe at our dependence on an expensive and centralized grid, which transmits our dollars out of state to the shareholders of multinational electricity monopolies and huge oil and gas companies.
For these reasons, I’m confident that Mainers will loudly reject the job-killing, tax-increasing, anti-renewable-energy rule recently created by the Maine Public Utilities Commission, which our bill would have blocked. Starting in January, the PUC rule will tax you for producing and using energy within your own home – even when it never touches the CMP grid. Already last among Northeastern states in solar capacity and solar jobs per capita, Maine will fall even further behind. Already, I am hearing reports of smaller installers selling their equipment.
Like most Maine businesspeople, I know that a level playing field in the energy markets will help all of us. Given fair treatment by policymakers, rooftop solar and other small, distributed generation will create jobs, decrease our dependence on out-of-state energy interests and lower energy costs for all of us.
Like most Maine parents or grandparents, I’ll sleep better when our carbon emissions have been reduced, and our catastrophic climate course reversed.
Like many Mainers, my wife and I enjoy the independence of harvesting our own firewood, vegetables and eggs from our hens. We certainly don’t expect to be billed by the oil dealer or grocery store for oil or food we don’t use. Yet under the new rule, we and most other Mainers can be billed by CMP for energy we produce and use in our own home.
Maine will be the first place in the world to levy such a fee. In our freedom-loving state, the new “CMP tax” will be deeply unpopular.
So, yes: Backstage political drama has killed another solar bill. But as the new PUC rule takes effect and an election approaches, I am confident that common sense will prevail. The clouds of confusion can hide the sun for only so long.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Seth Berry, a Democratic state representative from Bowdoinham, is a former House majority leader and current House chair of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee.