At stake is the pace of solar development and how electric customers will be treated.
By Tux Turkel, Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald news story
HALLOWELL – The pace of solar energy development in Maine will hinge in part on whether a group of state officials, business interests and environmental advocates can agree on rules that would govern how utilities pay customers who generate electricity from the sun.
Participants met Wednesday at the Maine Public Utilities Commission here in a bid to craft a comprehensive plan that would expand solar power in a way that treats all electric customers fairly. Their recommendations will go next month to the Legislature, where the outcome is uncertain.
Outdoors in the parking lot, a collection of renewable energy advocates and their allies held a media event to draw attention to the meeting and call for state policies that promote solar. More than 50 people held signs and chanted slogans, before a handful of speakers took to a podium. Advocates noted that Maine’s lack of support for solar has put the state at or near last place in New England for the amount of generation and number of jobs associated with the industry.
Their message was meant to put pressure on the study group to come up with a plan, and for lawmakers to endorse it.
“Solar power is creating huge opportunities for job creation across the region and across the country,” said Nick Paquet, an electrician with the IBEW labor union, because electricians install solar power systems. “Every megawatt of solar power means 20 electricians put to work. Maine has made good strides toward renewable energy and renewable energy jobs, but we’re woefully behind on solar. That should change if we are serious about providing more good quality jobs for Mainers.”
But getting stakeholders that include Central Maine Power, Gov. Paul LePage, Sierra Club Maine and national solar installers represented by the Alliance for Solar Choice in agreement won’t be easy.
At issue is how to value solar electricity, based on factors including project size, ownership, time of day and its benefits to society. Maine utilities currently provide a one-to-one credit to customers on their bills for power they generate, a practice called net metering. The practice essentially means the customer is paying only for the “net” electricity he or she bought from the utility, minus what they sold to the utility. But utilities say this system won’t fairly compensate them for the cost of providing service to all customers, as more homes and businesses turn to sun power.
The future of net metering is being debated across the country and recent changes in Hawaii and Arizona have led to lawsuits from the solar industry. In Maine, an ad hoc task force of three-dozen people called the Solar Policy Stakeholders Group has been meeting since summer in hopes of finding consensus. It was formed by direction of the Legislature, after a wide-ranging solar energy bill failed to pass and overcome opposition from LePage.
Maine currently has about 20 megawatts of solar capacity installed. The proposal being considered by the policy group would boost that to 255 megawatts by 2021, which would represent more than 2 percent of Maine’s overall power needs. The generation would take place at homes and small businesses, community solar farms, large commercial and industrial businesses and utility-scale projects.
But first, participants need to agree on sticking points that are proving contentious nationwide. Those include how home customers, who now benefit from net metering, would be compensated and how that would affect other ratepayers.
“I’m a ratepayer advocate, not a solar advocate,” said Tim Schneider, Maine’s Public Advocate, who is chairing the group. “But in this process, we need to find something that works for all stakeholders.”
Obstacles to reaching that consensus were clear during Wednesday’s meeting. Representatives from Sierra Club Maine, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Alliance for Solar Choice defended the merits of net metering, as well as a study done for the PUC that showed an outsized value for rooftop solar, based on stable fuel prices and other external measures. Solar advocates want net metering to remain an option for homes and small businesses, saying it has driven an industry that has created thousands of jobs nationwide.
Schneider is promoting a framework in which net metering for homes and small businesses would be replaced with compensation that includes fixed-price, long-term contracts for their power. He maintains that existing customers will be better off, but solar advocates worry that payments set too low will discourage residents from installing panels, or that the policy will favor utility-scale projects.
The stakeholder group is set to meet once more next month, before preparing recommendations for lawmakers.