A delivery charge for electricity that does not have to be delivered is a backward policy.
By The Editorial Board
Central Maine newspapers editorial
With every technological advance, solar energy becomes less expensive and a more attractive as an investment.
Except in Maine, where the Public Utilities Commission has developed policy to fight progress. While other states provide incentives for home and business owners to generate some or all of their electricity with solar panels, our PUC wants to punish people who invest in clean power, charging them for the electrify they generated.
In the words of one advocate, it’s like a grocery store billing a customer with a garden for the produce they didn’t buy.
Before this goes any further, we hope the courts will intercede. Maine should not try to stop this energy revolution.
That’s the notion behind a lawsuit filed in Superior Court by the Conservation Law Foundation, the Industrial Energy Consumer Group, ReVision Energy and the Natural Resources Council of Maine. The plaintiffs had a procedural setback last week, when their attempt to take the case right to the state supreme court was rebuffed. But they are still on track to restore a more sensible energy policy.
What’s at stake is the way homes and businesses with solar panels are compensated for electricity they produce in excess of what they use themselves. For years, these customers received a credit against their next electric bill for every kilowatt hour they put on the grid. To keep things simple, they were compensated at the same rate per hour as they would have been charged, a practice called net metering.
The credits enabled homeowners to invest in solar equipment and pay off the cost over time, using the money they saved on electric bills. But as solar power became more affordable, regulators could foresee a problem. Depending on the time of day and season, the system could be committed to pay more for power from the rooftop collectors than they could find on the energy market.
And solar customers were spending less for transmission and delivery than their nonsolar neighbors, even though they were just as reliant on a functioning grid. If solar got big enough, people who couldn’t afford to buy solar equipment could end up paying more for their electricity than necessary.
A forward-thinking compromise was designed by a coalition of industrial and environmental groups in a process run by the state’s public advocate, but when it was passed by the Legislature in 2016, it was vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage. He wanted to eliminate net metering completely, taking away any incentive a home or business owner might have to invest in solar power. Looking to reach a compromise, the PUC came up with an alternative that in some ways is even worse.
Under the PUC rule, solar customers are charged transmission costs not just for the electricity they draw off the grid, but also for the energy they produce at home. In other words, they have to pay a delivery charge for electricity that is not delivered.
This is absolutely the wrong direction for Maine. We should be expanding the role of renewable energy in the fight to slow down climate change and keep the air clean. It also contributes to our economy, generating good jobs installing and maintaining solar panels that can light and heat our homes. These are the only energy jobs we are ever going to get, and we shouldn’t throw them away, shipping billions of dollars out of state each year to buy natural gas and heating oil.
Maine should have a sensible energy policy. This lawsuit is a step in that direction.