Augusta, ME – Hundreds of proponents of solar power gathered at the State House today to call on lawmakers to pass legislation this year to move Maine forward on solar power and prevent rollbacks by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC). Many will testify at a public hearing this afternoon in favor of An Act to Protect and Expand Access to Solar Power in Maine (LD 1373), sponsored by Representative Seth Berry of Bowdoinham.
Supporters of the bill included dozens of Maine environmental organizations, Maine solar companies, town and city officials, religious leaders, and public health advocates, such as the American Lung Association. A wide array of Maine people and organizations has been outraged by the PUC’s recent decision to roll back net metering, which will make it more expensive and difficult to install solar power. The PUC’s new rules will take effect at the end of 2017 if the Legislature does not act to prevent that.
“Maine is at a critical crossroads on solar power,” said Dylan Voorhees, Climate and Clean Energy Director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “Solar power presents opportunity to expand our economy, protect our environment, create jobs, and lower energy costs. But the PUC net metering rollback is so extreme that it includes a new tax on solar akin to utilities charging people who use less electricity an extra fee because they dry their clothes on a clothesline. Inaction by the Legislature, combined with the anti-solar action by the Public Utilities Commission, threatens to move Maine further backward.”
“It’s time Maine controlled more of its energy future,” said Rep. Seth Berry, sponsor of LD 1373 and House Chair of the Energy, Utilities & Technology Committee. “Mainers investing in solar are creating jobs. They are also reducing energy costs and emissions, which helps all of us. I look forward to working with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to pass this bill, and to let more Maine people and businesses participate in the solar energy economy.”
“At the Maine Council of Churches, we believe that our Earth is a precious gift from God and we have a duty to nurture her and protect her from harm,” said Bonny Rodden, President of the Maine Council of Churches, which represents nine denominations. “Solar power treats the Earth gently. It is a fuel source that replenishes itself without the risk of oil spills or poisoned wells. We support legislation that promotes solar energy and provides rebates that make it accessible to all—the poor as well as the well-to-do.”
Among other benefits, a strong solar industry can help Maine attract and retain younger workers. Maine is in last place in New England for solar jobs per capita because of the political and regulatory weakness and uncertainty that has plagued Maine for the last several years. Elsewhere in the country, solar jobs are expanding at a rate of more than 20 percent per year. Solar power is a statewide energy resource, available in rural areas as well as urban, and creates jobs and economic opportunities in every county.
“The PUC further politicized solar policy in Maine with a decision that reflects the worst in regulation— a rule that is based heavily on ideology and ignores the input provided by those who work in the field everyday,” said Vaughan Woodruff, owner of Insource Renewables in Pittsfield and chair of the industry’s Committee on Renewable Energy. “The PUC’s rule change reflects a body that is used to dealing with regulated monopolies and has little understanding of the free market. I hope the Legislature will recognize how the PUC’s work on this issue has put Maine businesses and municipalities at a further disadvantage and will provide the leadership needed to correct it.”
Solar power is increasingly attractive for businesses and other institutions seeking to lower energy costs. That includes Maine towns and cities, which often have significant energy costs that are ultimately born by local taxpayers. More than a dozen municipalities already have solar arrays and take advantage of net metering, and many more are considering projects, some of which could be quite large. The political and regulatory uncertainty has made it more difficult for towns to consider their solar options and has led to some projects being put on hold.
“The voters of Woolwich just recently voted to move forward with a solar array that would provide power for the town and help lower municipal energy costs,” said Allison Helper, member of the Woolwich Select Board. “We’re only partway through the process, but based on what we’ve seen from other towns, solar power seems like an exciting opportunity for the town. Clear, stable, effective state policies that encourage investment in solar are important, which is why I support LD 1373.”
“We support legislation that improves Maine’s economy, protects its distinctive character, strengthens communities, and enhances our state’s quality places,” said Nancy Smith, Executive Director of GrowSmart Maine. “GrowSmart Maine strongly supports LD 1373 because it provides the necessary structure and certainty for Maine businesses, residents, and government agencies as they invest in solar production to provide locally sourced energy, reducing Maine’s reliance on fossil fuels.”
Maine continues to fall behind in solar and now the imperative for action has increased with the PUC’s decision to weaken net metering. The PUC’s new net metering rules faced massive public opposition and were widely criticized as costly and unsupported by any evidence. One provision is seen as particularly extreme: for the first time utilities would charge Maine homes and businesses a fee for solar power they produce and consume themselves on site. The PUC also chose to retain an arbitrary nine-person limit on shared, community solar projects. Rep. Berry’s bill would remove this limit, prohibit new fees on solar customers, and establish the clear right of all customers to use net metering to generate their own power (a right they have enjoyed for decades).
“Alongside large-scale solar projects to eventually make solar power a major portion of Maine’s electricity total, and thereby realize all the benefits of solar energy, smaller local projects are essential,” said Steve Weems, Executive Director of the Solar Energy Association of Maine. “The small project market segment is supported by net energy billing, which LD 1373 would protect and nourish. Local, small-scale solar projects, in tandem with other solutions, are the best way to limit transmission costs, which have quadrupled over the last fifteen years, making electricity more expensive. Rep. Berry’s bill will help slay this dragon and lead the way to lower energy costs in Maine, to the benefit of all electricity customers.”
“Expanding solar power in Maine through LD 1373 is a priority of the Environmental Priorities Coalition because we must act on climate change now,” said Beth Ahearn, Political Director for the Maine Conservation Alliance. “Solar power is clean, it’s local; it will reduce our dependence on polluting fossil fuel and help us all breathe cleaner air. Solar is good for the environment and the economy, so it is a clear win-win. Expanding access to solar will result in good-paying jobs and brings down costs for all ratepayers by reducing the need to build costly transmission lines.”
“One of the key goals of the American Lung Association is to assure the air we breathe doesn’t cause or worsen lung disease,” said Lance Boucher, Public Policy Director for the American Lung Association of the Northeast. “Expansion of non-polluting solar furthers this goal. Good energy policy is also good health policy.”
Background on the new PUC net metering rule:
- Takes effect at the end of 2017 unless the Legislature acts to supersede the rule.
- Phases out net metering for new customers starting in 2018. Beginning then, solar customers would no longer receive a 1-to-1 credit for electricity they put on the grid vs. what they purchase from the grid, which has been the basis of net metering for decades. This phase-out short-changes those who purchase solar arrays and requires complicated new billing arrangements by utilities.
- Requires the installation of a second, dedicated meter that will allow utilities to measure the total amount of electricity a solar system generates. The cost of this second meter will be borne by all ratepayers. (The rule also fails to take any advantage of smart meters, now on nearly every Maine home and business.)
- Uses the new meters for utilities to charge solar customers a “delivery” fee for solar electricity generated on-site, even for electricity that never leaves their home or business.
- Fails to remove the PUC’s arbitrary nine-person limit on shared, community solar farms. The PUC had proposed lifting the limit, but then retained it, saying it was a matter for the Legislature.
Summary of LD 1373
- Protect solar net metering by establishing clear, strong requirements in law, preventing the PUC from weakening or eliminating net metering.
- Remove the limit on the number of participants in a community solar farm.
- Re-establish Maine’s lapsed solar rebate program that reduces upfront costs for residents and businesses to install solar panels:
- Establish a $2 million/year fund focused on small businesses, low- and moderate-income households, and affordable housing.
- Benefit about 300 small businesses and 3,000 homes over six years, after which it is phased-out in a predictable way, in line with expected further decreases in the cost of solar systems.
- Makes net metering and solar rebates accessible for third-party solar financing, which also reduces upfront costs to install solar.