“The Maine Public Utilities Commission is out of control…”
by Andy O’Brien
Free Press news story
Last week, Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) voted to move back the date to implement controversial new rules affecting rooftop solar users from May 1 to March 16. Under Maine’s current net-metering rules, homes and businesses can sell excess solar power produced on-site back to the grid at the standard retail price. However, last February, the PUC issued a ruling to gradually reduce that compensation for new solar customers, even if power is generated and consumed on-site and never makes it to the grid.
The new rules were originally scheduled to take effect on January 1, but the PUC voted in December to extend the deadline ahead four months in order to solve a dispute between utilities and solar installers over a provision that requires the installation of a second meter in the homes of solar users to measure gross electricity output in order to charge them additional transmission and distribution fees.
At the commission’s meeting on Feb. 21, PUC Chairman Mark Vannoy said that the effort to solve the meter dispute was successful so the rules can take effect sooner.
“Therefore the need to hold off until the end of April is no longer necessary,” said Vannoy. “If installers have specific customers that are currently in construction right now, those customers can be brought forward on a case-by-case
basis to the commission for consideration regarding their grandfathered status. We have seen much delay in the process of implementing this rule. The time has come to move forward.”
The PUC’s decision to begin phasing down support for solar is based on the beliefs that the incentives are no longer needed because the cost of solar has dropped and that non-solar users currently subsidize solar producers for the cost of maintaining the electric grid. However, solar advocates argue that solar reduces costs for all ratepayers because on-site electricity generation reduces the need to build out more expensive powerline infrastructure, among other benefits. Advocates say that by reducing the value of net-metering credits for solar generated electricity sent back to the grid, regulators are taxing those who draw less power from the grid even as they provide power to other customers.
Back in December, Gov. Paul LePage sent a letter to the PUC calling on them to rescind the four-month delay and immediately implement the rules because he said that postponing them only benefits installers and “wealthy people who can afford redundant electric systems.” Last year, the governor pressured former MPUC member Carlysle McLean to resign for not going far enough with the decision to phase out solar incentives. The governor has vetoed multiple bills to preserve solar incentives.
Dylan Voorhees of the Natural Resources Council of Maine said the recent ruling will send a message to investors “that Maine is a risky place to do business.”
“The Maine Public Utilities Commission is out of control,” said Voorhees in a statement. “Today the PUC decided Maine is closed for business and intent on destroying jobs in America’s fastest-growing job market. The PUC decision to move the goal posts for the third time in a single year is a slap in the face to hundreds of Maine workers and their families who are investing in greater energy independence for our state. The PUC has again shown its willingness to put the Governor’s whims ahead of its duty to make sound, fair, fact-based economic decisions.”
Solar installers also blasted the decision to require utilities to install the new meter to measure the gross output of solar power. The solar company ReVision argued in a Feb. 9 filing that the PUC’s meter requirement is “inconsistent” with state statute and “patently unfair.”
“It is also needlessly complex and expensive to implement, undermining the purported justification for the rule amendment propagated by the Commission in March 2017,” wrote ReVision Energy co-founder Fortunat Mueller. “This cost and complexity of this extraneous metering has become increasingly clear to all of the parties who have been working together in good faith to try to implement this fundamentally flawed rule through the informal working group convened by Commission staff.”
The rules require all electricity customers to pay for the new meters, which Central Maine Power initially estimated would cost around $660 each, although the Pittsfield-based solar installer Insource Renewables estimates it could cost up to $1,500 for each meter.
In his remarks, Chairman Vannoy acknowledged that new inverter technology could also undermine the rule. For example, the Westbrook company Pika Energy produces a device that allows homeowners to couple solar photovoltaic energy and battery storage on a common DC bus that feeds into its islanding inverter. The islanding inverter also supports a subpanel of AC “critical loads” that are powered from a combination of solar and battery storage during power outages. Therefore, it’s very difficult for utilities to both measure the output to the grid and output to the subpanel without making it very complicated.
“There will be some installations where DC loads or critical loads consume some portion of generation prior to it reaching the meter,” said Vannoy. “These situations may grow in their frequency as technology continues to evolve. By allowing this there is opportunity to game the rule by putting all loads, rather than simply critical loads, on a subpanel connected to the islanding tap of the inverter.”
To prevent installers from subverting the rules, Vannoy said the utilities should include a lined diagram that illustrates the installed system and the total load on the critical load panel. He said the PUC will continue to monitor technology and will examine cases of installers allegedly gaming the system on a case-by-case basis.
But in a Feb. 16 filing, Ben Polito, CEO of Pika Energy — a Maine-based manufacturer of clean energy products including solar inverters and power optimizers that was founded in 2010 by MIT engineers and is headquartered in Westbrook — wrote that installers are finding it “extremely challenging” to meet the new requirements, which he said would have a detrimental effect on his business.
“Our products are very popular elsewhere in the US, but ironically we may be effectively prevented from selling them in our own home state,” wrote Polito. “This challenge is not unique to Pika Energy; for example other leading manufacturers including SolarEdge offer integrated coupling of solar, batteries, and electric vehicles.”
Polito added that the only practical way to meter that is compatible with modern solar-storage systems is with the current “bi-directional metering in a single location at the point of connection between the utility and the customer’s electrical service.”
“For this reason,” wrote Polito, “to prevent significant economic damage, we recommend that the proposed onerous, expensive and complex multiple-location metering requirements be rescinded, and that the Commission seek further public input on a fair and practical approach that reflects the reality of modern distributed energy system designs.”
Meanwhile, Conservation Law Foundation’s lawsuit challenging the PUC rules is pending in Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court. The court heard arguments in December.