Hoping to capitalize on a shift in the political climate, installers and other advocates for solar energy want homeowners to again receive credit for feeding electricity back into the grid.
by Kevin Miller, Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald news story
AUGUSTA — Solar power advocates urged Maine lawmakers on Tuesday to revive financial incentives for homeowners and eliminate a controversial policy that critics contend penalizes solar energy generation.
After several disappointing years at the State House, solar installers and other advocates are hoping to capitalize on Maine’s recent political changes in seeking to rewrite the state’s solar policy. In an initial step, solar supporters want the Legislature to fully restore the “net metering” policy that allows homeowners to receive credits on their utility bills for excess electricity fed back into the power grid. But they are also hoping lawmakers will eliminate a “gross metering” policy that requires homeowners to install an additional meter – paid for by all ratepayers – to monitor the output of solar panels.
“We’re looking at the long game here,” said Steven Weems, executive director of the Solar Energy Association of Maine, speaking in support of a bill seeking both changes. “As a state and as a society, we have to move towards more independent, local generation … and this bill would be a little, tiny baby step in the direction of restoring stability in the market and giving us a platform to develop a much more comprehensive and productive energy policy.”
Maine’s solar energy policies have been in flux for years due largely to former Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican who led efforts to phase out the financial incentives utilized by solar-powered homes and businesses. That dynamic changed dramatically last November, however, with the election of Democratic Gov. Janet Mills – a vocal proponent of renewable energy – as well as Democratic majorities in both chambers of the Legislature.
On Tuesday, a legislative committee heard testimony on two bills that would both repeal the “gross metering” policy created to ensure solar-powered homes still help cover the costs of building and maintaining the state’s electricity infrastructure. Adopted by the Maine Public Utilities Commission as part of a phase-out of net metering, gross metering allows utilities to track how much solar power is produced by an array and then charge a fee on that production, even when the electricity never leaves the house.
But the costs of installing those meters – borne by all ratepayers – has been considerably higher than the initial estimate of $500 each, prompting the PUC to rescind the requirement for large solar producers in December. And opponents regard the policy as a financial penalty that merely discourages homeowners from investing in solar technology.
Fortunat Mueller, co-founder of the solar installation company ReVision Energy, said gross metering pays utility companies for electrons that flowed from rooftop solar panels to a light bulb in the same house without entering the grid.
“That just doesn’t pass the straight-face test and is the fundamental fairness question that people have with gross metering, and I don’t think it takes a huge amount of creativity to understand why,” Mueller told members of the Legislature’s Energy Utilities and Technology Committee.
However, the two bills proposed starkly different proposals for addressing “net metering.”
The bill by Democratic Rep. Seth Berry of Bowdoinham, L.D. 91, would temporarily restore net metering or “net-energy billing” to the way it was in 2017 when homeowners could receive a full credit on their bills for every excess kilowatt hour of solar energy fed into the grid. Berry said the temporary restoration would give policymakers time to develop more comprehensive solar energy policies that address the complexities of the market while encouraging investment in a clean-energy technology that benefits the entire state.
“Net metering is not enough compensation, in my view, for those who have (installed) rooftop solar for the service they are providing to all of us,” Berry said. “But I think it’s a much simpler and less expensive system, which we should go back to immediately.”
The second bill, L.D. 41 sponsored by Republican Rep. Beth O’Connor of Berwick, would allow customers to continue entering into net metering arrangements through Dec. 31, 2019, but would use a “fair market” system thereafter. Financial incentives given to solar customers would be capped at 6 cents per kilowatt hour, a level that O’Connor said would still encourage expansion of the industry without imposing a “tax” on non-solar ratepayers.
But Weems with the Solar Energy Association of Maine said O’Connor’s proposal “sounds good but the economics of it are like a poison pill that would kill the small, distributed-solar industry.”
The Maine Public Utilities Commission as well as the state’s two largest power utilities, Central Maine Power and Emera Maine, testified neither for nor against either bill.
Barry Hobbins, who represents ratepayers in PUC proceedings as Maine’s public advocate, noted that roughly half of the committee members are new. A former legislator and committee co-chairman, Hobbins recommended lawmakers delay action on the bills so subcommittees can attempt to find consensus on these and other complex energy issues rather than risk falling into the “polarized” camps that have prevented progress in recent years.
The committee is expected to hold a work session on the bills next week on an as-yet-undetermined date.