Behind closed doors and in debate, Republican Minority Leader Ken Fredette let the attack on the most significant solar energy measure Maine has ever seen.
By Sam Zuckerman, owner, Maine Solar Solutions in Portland
Portland Press Herald op-ed
April 29th was a dark day for solar energy in Maine. It was the day that an innovative solar energy bill with tremendous potential to create hundreds of jobs was killed. It was a particularly dark day for those of us who watched it happen.
As the owner of Maine Solar Solutions, I care a lot about solar policy. Over the past few years, I’ve created a company that’s installed solar systems in towns across Maine, including Bethel, Limington, Standish, Gorham, Hollis, Rockport, and Lyman, to name a few. My goal is to help Mainers secure clean, renewable energy from the sun and create jobs for Maine people.
But with the demise of the solar bill, small businesses like mine now face the prospect of shedding jobs instead of adding them.
This groundbreaking bill was the product of more than seven months of negotiations among diverse stakeholders who rarely agree. In this case, however, utilities, businesses, Maine’s ratepayer advocate and environmental groups came together around a bill that would benefit Maine ratepayers and the state as a whole.
Lengthy, intense negotiations led to compromises on all sides and the result was compelling: a big increase in solar energy, 650 new jobs, and more than $58 million in reduced electricity costs for non-solar customers, according to Maine’s Public Advocate, whose job is to protect ratepayers. The big innovation in the bill was a transition away from net metering, a policy allowing those who generate solar power to swap that generation with power from the grid. The new approach would involve long-term contracts at rates expected to be below market prices; hence, the savings to ratepayers.
The bill received a strong bipartisan vote in the House and unanimous support in the Senate, before it was vetoed by the governor. What happened next was troubling for Maine’s future.
As citizens from across Maine arrived at the State House in yellow shirts signaling support for solar, Republican Minority Leader Ken Fredette, behind closed doors, worked the bill.
I watched as key Republican legislators were called into Ken Fredette’s office for private meetings. Multiple Republican lawmakers later described his heavy-handed lobbying. Several refused to budge, but others would end up caving under the pressure.
During the floor debate, Rep. Fredette was the lead opponent, attacking the most significant solar energy bill Maine has ever seen with a speech littered with false and misleading information.
He claimed that he supports solar energy but opposed this “rush to judgment.” Seven months of negotiations, a public hearing with more than 100 testifying in support, and five work sessions by the committee was not a rush to judgment.
He claimed solar is growing and will continue to grow, regardless of the bill. But the facts are clear: Maine lags far behind other states in capturing the economic benefits of solar. We have fewer solar jobs per capita than any state in New England. Last year alone, Vermont added more than twice as much solar (45 MW) as Maine installed in the past 40 years (20 MW).
He made the divisive claim that the bill was aimed at “socializing the costs of solar.” Far from it, the bill would socialize the benefits of solar.
As demonstrated by the Public Utilities Commission’s 2015 “value of solar” study, each kilowatt-hour of solar provides 33 cents of benefits, in avoided supply, transmission, and distribution costs, and air quality improvements – far exceeding the 13 cents per kilowatt-hour that residential solar customers receive as a bill credit. Expanding solar thus benefits all ratepayers.
Ironically, Rep. Fredette ignored the PUC study, yet urged lawmakers to vote against the bill because he trusts the PUC with an upcoming review of net metering. However, he failed to disclose that the PUC may scrap net metering, which would kill as many as 300 existing solar jobs in Maine.
Mr. Fredette’s efforts worked. Some of his target Republicans, who had promised their own constituents they would support the bill, flipped against it or “took a walk” and didn’t vote.
This defeated a carefully-crafted, bipartisan, job-creating clean energy bill that would have delivered big benefits to Maine. This means that existing jobs will be lost and many new hires won’t happen.