The proposal to pave the way for solar development has the support of utility companies, environmentalists and solar installers, but Gov. Paul LePage’s opposition may doom the measure.
By Tux Turkel, Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald news story
AUGUSTA — Clean energy advocates and their allies were gearing up on Wednesday to promote a proposed law aimed at vastly increasing the development of solar power in Maine over the next five years.
The Legislature’s Energy, Utilities, and Technology Committee is set to hear testimony on a comprehensive solar bill that supporters say would benefit homeowners and businesses, as well as all electric customers.
Ahead of the 1 p.m. hearing, the Natural Resources Council of Maine has organized a noon news conference at the State House featuring solar installers speaking about the importance of the bill to their businesses.
The proposal is the product of months of negotiations. It was brokered by the Office of Public Advocate and has the support of a wide range of interest groups that often are on opposing sides. They include the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Maine Chapter of the Sierra Club and the state’s two investor-owned utilities, Central Maine Power and Emera Maine.
But the plan has failed to gain the backing of Gov. Paul LePage, who said it maintains subsidies for homeowners who install solar panels at levels that hurt other ratepayers. His opposition suggests supporters will need to garner a two-third majority in the Legislature, to override an expected veto, if the bill makes it to a floor vote.
On the other end of the spectrum, interest groups that represent some solar installers also have misgivings about changing a long-standing rule called net metering, which dictates how homeowners with solar panels are compensated for the electricity they produce.
LePage’s biggest quarrel with the proposal is the net metering billing practice. Many states have net metering laws, which require utilities to provide a one-to-one credit to customers on their bills for power they generate and feed back into the grid. But it’s a controversial rule that’s under fire in other states, and the proposal being heard on Wednesday seeks a compromise that would put new solar panel owners under a different system of compensation.
While the debate is rooted in the pros and cons of renewable energy costs, the merits of solar energy may warrant a new consideration, at a time when Maine’s paper industry continues to shrink and put skilled workers on the street. Solar advocates contend that laid off paper makers can be retrained to install solar panels.
“At a time when Maine’s communities are being severely impacted by the loss of technical mill jobs, Maine’s solar industry provides significant opportunity to develop the next generation of blue collar workers,” the Natural Resources Council said in a statement on Wednesday. “Moderate solar policy in Maine has the opportunity to catalyze 800 to 1,000 new jobs in the state without costs to Maine’s taxpayers and ratepayers.”
The notion of solar energy as a job producer in Maine may seem like a novel idea to some, but the activity is tracked by trade groups such as The Solar Foundation. Its latest Solar Jobs Census ranked Maine 43rd in the country, with 330 jobs attached to the industry, the largest share of them installers in Cumberland County. Massachusetts was ranked second, with 15,095 jobs.
Solar jobs are supported by various government policies. Homeowners in all states who install solar panels are eligible for a 30 percent federal tax credit. But Maine has no additional incentives, aside from net metering. Massachusetts has incentives that include a personal income tax credit up to $1,000 and a sales tax exemption on solar equipment.
The proposed bill aims to grow solar capacity in Maine from about 18 megawatts today to 250 megawatts in five years, or 2 percent of the state’s power needs. Roughly half of the growth would come from homes and small businesses. Lesser amounts would come from utility-scale projects, community solar farms, and from the commercial and industrial sectors.
To hit the targets, utilities would serve as a so-called standard buyer, purchasing the output from each market segment and using revenue from the sale of the power to offset the cost of contracts running 20 years. The Public Utilities Commission would seek bids for the best rates.
The plan also would allow existing customers to continue net metering through 2029. Net metering rules were enacted years ago, when solar-electric panels were new and too costly for wide-scale use. Utilities say the system doesn’t fairly compensate them for the full cost of providing service to all customers, as more homes and businesses turn to solar power.
To overcome that opposition, the proposal requires new solar owners to be part of the standard buyer system and be compensated based on the rates set in the 20-year contract. It also opens the door for companies affiliated with CMP and Emera, which build renewable energy projects in other states, to participate in grid scale solar ventures in Maine.