by Scott Thistle, State Politics Editor
Sun Journal news story
HALLOWELL — Despite the gray overcast of a mid-December day, a coalition of advocates, who say state regulators need to do more to embrace and promote solar energy rallied outside the Maine Public Utilities Commission on Wednesday.
“Maine needs solar jobs,” the group of about 50 people chanted at one point during their rally.
Moments earlier, inside the PUC, commission members, along with a broad panel of individuals representing solar energy stakeholders, including homeowners, environmental groups, solar panel installation firms, power companies and utility ratepayers were reviewing policy proposals aimed at helping the state reach its clean-energy goals and grow jobs in the process.
As a result of a legislative resolve passed into law earlier this year, the PUC, along with Maine’s Public Advocate Timothy Schneider, have been working with the diverse group to recast state energy policy in ways that could have an impact on how those who generate excess solar power are compensated when they send that juice back to the grid.
A practice, known as net metering, requires power companies such as Central Maine Power to credit those who generate solar electricity at a rate of one kilowatt for every extra kilowatt they send to the grid.
In many cases, this system, which also allows homeowners to use the energy they generate when they need it, is fueling solar installations across the country.
But power companies are leery as they absorb more and more costs for metering, monitoring and banking energy credits for homeowners while the explosion of more locally generated electricity is undermining the financial model on which expensive expansions of power transmission lines are designed.
As more homeowners install solar energy and improve efficiencies, the demand for energy provided via that transmission infrastructure logically declines.
One change could be a system that sees solar generators lose some of those credits in exchange for a fixed rate for the power they generate over the long term.
And while some see a change in the system as inevitable, others are concerned that homeowners and businesses will begin to shy away from installing solar if incentives are eroded to the point they no longer make financial sense.
Kurt Penney, a solar roof systems business development specialist with the Lewiston-based Industrial Roofing Companies, said most of the companies’ solar work is in Massachusetts, where he is based.
And while growth is surging, Maine has largely lagged behind the rest of New England when it comes to installing solar panels for businesses and homes, Penney said.
He said Maine’s solar industry needs to and can catch up if the PUC and the state Legislature can set thoughtful policies.
As of Dec. 31, 2014, Maine, last in New England, had about 11 megawatts of installed solar power capacity. Massachusetts, a national leader by comparison, had more than 660 megawatts. Maine has a goal of 255 megawatts of installed solar capacity by 2021.
“I hope that Maine will recognize the importance of this technology,” Penney said during the rally, which was organized by the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Maine Chapter of the Sierra Club.
“We are here to tell you that this industry is real — we can reduce costs, we can make this attractive to commercial business owners and we hope to tie together our roofing and solar skills to make this truly a practical and economic, as well as environmental, choice for business owners in Maine,” Penney said.
Penney later said the state must create a regulatory environment that is not only supportive of solar and other types of renewable energy but also a stable and dependable one so homeowners and businesses can trust that their investments in clean energy will pay off — or at a minimum, will help pay for themselves.
He also said the power companies must stop seeing those who generate solar energy as a threat to their business models and start to see them as what he describes as “channel partners.”
“We should be considered as an opportunity so that we don’t have to spend so much money on utility upgrades,” Penney said.
Environmental advocates, including those with the Sierra Club and the NRCM, note that the installation of clean energy, along with increased energy efficiencies, help in reducing the demand on fossil fuels and carbon emissions.
Those advocates said that retooling the way solar producers are compensated with net metering systems should be a careful and deliberate move.
“We want there to be an incentive for people to build solar, but we also want to fairly recognize the value of solar, and that’s the same thing,” said Dylan Voorhees, the clean energy project director for NRCM. “People use different labels to describe that, but we actually want people to be paid a fair way for what solar is worth and that creates an incentive for people to invest in solar.”
Jason Keyes, a California-based attorney with The Alliance for Solar Choice, a national organization that advocates for solar energy, said the policy of net metering should not be dismantled because it’s proven to work in growing solar investment. Keyes, who was a participant in the solar stakeholders group in Maine, said net metering should remain one of multiple options that businesses and homeowners have when they decide to become solar producers and consumers.
According to Keyes, Maine should first work to set up sound policies to support large-scale solar developments and leave net metering as it pertains to homeowners as it is for the time being.
“They should focus on those because those are meeting market segments that aren’t being met now,” Keyes said. “They can come back to the residential market two to three years from now and (look at alternatives).”
The alliance noted in a release issued Wednesday that more than 2,700 Mainers have signed a petition urging the Maine PUC to keep net metering for homeowners as it is and to enhance it with alternatives.
And while the PUC may be able to make some changes to the programs aimed at solar producers and consumers, any large changes to Maine energy policy would likely first be subject to legislative debate.