The filing is regarded as a likely precursor to a potential court challenge of the Maine Public Utilities Commission that changed the financial incentives for solar energy customers.
by Kevin Miller, staff writer
Portland Press Herald news story
AUGUSTA – A coalition of organizations and businesses are petitioning the Maine Public Utilities Commission to reconsider a recent decision on solar energy billing even as they gear up for a potential court challenge.
In a formal request expected to be filed Tuesday with the PUC, the petitioners argue the commissioners failed to take into account the broader interests of electricity ratepayers when they voted in January to change the compensation system for solar energy users. Instead, the petitioners said the PUC decision to gradually reduce the financial incentives offered to homeowners who install solar energy systems “are more likely to raise unnecessarily electricity costs for Maine ratepayers without any countervailing benefits.”
“We are giving them one last chance to get this right and to avoid taking us in a backward direction,” said Dylan Voorhees, climate and clean energy director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “Given the track record that we have had so far with this commission on solar energy and clean energy, unfortunately we are not overly optimistic.”
Opponents of the PUC decision on net energy billing – or “net metering” – are pursuing a three-pronged campaign to overturn a rule that they contend will hurt Maine’s small but growing solar industry.
Although unlikely, the three-member commission could agree to revisit the rule. Solar energy advocates and industry representatives are also lobbying hard for a legislative fix one year after Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a solar policy bill left the issue in the hands of the PUC. Lastly, the organizations could appeal the PUC rules to the Maine Superior Court.
“At this point, all options are certainly on the table,” said Emily Green, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation.
NRCM and the Conservation Law Foundation were joined on the petition by two solar companies – ReVision Energy and Insource Renewables – as well as more than 2,150 individuals.
Net metering provides homeowners or businesses with credits on their electricity bills for excess solar energy they feed back into the grid. Supporters argue the policy is critical to the expansion of solar technology – and local growth of an industry that is booming nationally – because it provides a financial incentive to customers to install solar energy systems. But LePage and other critics contend the policy is essentially forcing all ratepayers to subsidize solar installations.
Under the PUC rules approved in January, homeowners who already have solar panels can continue to receive credit at the full retail rate for the power they produce for 15 years. Those who install solar energy systems in 2018 or later would see the credits gradually reduced over time, however.
During a State House press conference, Green argued that the PUC runs counter to previous actions by the Legislature committing the state to increase the number of businesses and residences installing solar as part of a broad, renewable energy strategy.
“In contrast, it will directly diminish returns on investments on installations of solar,” Green said. “As such, the new rule will decrease the number of businesses and residents using solar, it will decrease jobs in the solar field and it will undermine efforts to increase private investment in solar in Maine. The commission does not have legal authority to make its own policy decisions in direct contradiction to the findings and determinations of our state Legislature.”
Petitioners accused the PUC of failing to consider its own study that suggested solar energy would have greater total monetary value – when considering environmental and social benefits – than conventional power generation if the technology were widely adopted. That is because solar energy systems reduce the costs of building or maintaining transmission and distribution infrastructure, natural gas pipelines, voltage regulation and environmental impacts involved in traditional electricity generation.
LePage, meanwhile, has also denounced the PUC’s net metering changes but from an entirely different perspective. Contrary to the dire predictions of solar advocates, LePage has predicted the PUC rules will lead to a massive expansion in the solar industry in Maine. The governor further argues such a shift would increase electricity rates in Maine, thereby making the state even less competitive for businesses despite the state’s status as New England’s cheapest market for electricity.
Although LePage has repeatedly blamed Maine’s solar policy for higher prices, solar constitutes a tiny percentage of Maine’s energy mix and has not been a major factor in recent electricity price increases.
“The fact is that the biggest driver of high electricity rates in Maine is the expensive construction of new transmission and distribution grid infrastructure,” Voorhees said. Solar energy systems on homes or businesses, Voorhees said, are a partial solution to that problem because they reduce the need for grid-scale infrastructure.