by Scott Thistle, State Politics Editor
Sun Journal news story
A bill that seeks to expand the use of photovoltaic solar panels in Maine and is funded with a fee to electric ratepayers passed the State House on Wednesday with what appears to be broad bipartisan support.
Key to the support was an amendment to the bill by state Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, that creates another rebate program for heat-pumps when they are installed by low-income families. The measure allows up to a $2,000 state rebate.
Harvell’s amendment was adopted with a 108-30 vote in the House. Harvell recently had installed a heat-pump in his home and has touted its efficiency in keeping his home warm during the last few cold weeks in March.
Harvell said his amendment was meant to allow lower income Mainers to benefit from a rebate program that would have otherwise largely been consumed by those wealthy enough to install solar panels on their homes.
“Low income couldn’t take advantage of it, and it’s a rate increase upon them,” Harvell said. “Because the initial outlay for solar and the payback is so long that it’s largely taken advantage of by people of means.”
Harvell said the cost of a heat-pump installation for a low-income family is the equivalent of the investment a family of means would make for a solar energy system.
“It addresses a more immediate need that the state faces, which is a heating crisis for the elderly and low-income people,” Harvell said.
LD 1252, creates a $1 million fund for the rebate program.
Under the legislation, anybody can apply for the rebate for solar but the rebate for a heat-pump would be limited to the low-income.
The rebate would be for about 10 percent of the costs of either system, and the program is set to expire in 2016.
The measure is timed to coincide with a similar federal rebate program that allows up to 30 percent of a renewable energy system to be rebated through a federal income tax credit.
“It’s always a good idea to sit down and work towards common goals, which is what I think we did today,” said Rep. Ryan Tipping-Spitz, D-Orono. “We should be helping people take action on climate change that’s completely in line with helping people heat their homes affordably.”
Supporters of the bill say the measure would add about 5 cents a month or 60 cents a year to the average ratepayer’s bill. Opponents dispute those figures.
Rep. Terry Morrision, R-South Portland, the bill’s original sponsor said he accepted the amendment and noted it was an example of bipartisan compromise and success that could benefit many Maine ratepayers.
“In this particular session it’s been hard for us to gain bipartisan support,” Morrison said. “There were some problems with the bill on the Republican side because it was just solar. I think it’s now a win-win for both sides of the aisle.”
Republican Gov. Paul LePage has said he will oppose any solar legislation that adds to the bills of Maine ratepayers and may veto the measure.
Rep. Larry Dunphy, R-Embden, was among those in the minority voting against the measure. Dunphy said the rate increase was mis-targeted and didn’t do enough to help Maine’s poorest ratepayers.
“A rate increase is a rate increase and my concern is we are burdening everybody, we are burdening industry, the middle-income ratepayers and we are continuing to burden the lower-income ratepayers,” Dunphy said.
The bill next moves to the state Senate.