Legislators should override the veto of a bill that would benefit utilities, consumers and the solar industry.
The solar energy bill that lawmakers will vote on Wednesday is the same one they passed by wide margins in June – 105-41 in the House and 29-6 in the Senate.
In the meantime, opponents have attempted to make the bill appear to be something it is not, but L.D. 1504 remains exactly what it has been since it reached its final form – a modest proposal that provides a bridge to what comes next for Maine’s solar industry, and a far preferable one to the alternative.
As such, legislators who supported the bill in June should vote just as they did before, when it received overwhelming support as the right next step for utilities, consumers and solar companies, and override the veto by Gov. LePage.
At its heart, L.D. 1504 merely avoids the implementation of a bad and unpopular rule from the state Public Utilities Commission.
It also starts the process that will determine how solar power generators are reimbursed in the future, and increases the number of people who can pool resources to invest in a solar farm, extending the ability to invest in solar power to people who otherwise couldn’t afford to, or who live where it is not practical, such as in an apartment.
It is the first part, however, that is causing a rift. After the failure last year to override the governor’s veto of a more comprehensive solar bill, the PUC formulated a plan that would charge owners of solar panels for the electricity they create and use on-site, requiring expensive new meters – in addition to the “smart meters” already in place – with the installation costs covered by all ratepayers.
That’s right: Solar panel owners would pay for power they create and use, with no help from an intermediary. Not only would all customers bear the costs, but it would eliminate incentives necessary to build up the solar industry.
The rules put in place by L.D. 1504, which would supersede the PUC rule, would not require new meters. Instead, current solar customers would be reimbursed at 100 percent for the excess electricity they produce and send to the grid, just as they are now. New customers next year would be reimbursed 10 percentage points less, with another reduction of 10 points for new customers in 2019.
In the meantime, the state would study how to best compensate owners of solar panels who generate more power than they use, the central question facing solar policy throughout the country.
In short, it would create certainty for people buying and selling solar panels – providing incentives for new customers to support an industry that necessarily provides local jobs – and it would give Maine time to figure out the complex relationship between solar generators and utilities.
Critics, including Central Maine Power Co., say L.D. 1504 would raise costs to ratepayers by as much as $150 million through 2035.
But that number certainly is inflated. It amounts to a scare tactic, and it has worked – lawmakers key to the vote have reported getting calls from constituents worried about their electric bills.
Those lawmakers should consider that the figure relies on what appear to be gross overestimates, and that a robust solar industry, helped by L.D. 1504, has benefits, too.
Maine’s Office of the Public Advocate says ratepayers can expect modest savings under the bill, and a PUC-commissioned study found that ratepayers benefit from a more dependable grid when it’s enhanced by solar power, a finding backed up in other research.
That’s why so many legislators voted for this bill in June, and that’s what’s on the table Wednesday. Nothing about the bill has changed, and neither should the “yes” votes.