We have commented before about the unusual coalition that came together behind the solar bill, which fell only two votes short of becoming law over a gubernatorial veto.

You could have predicted that solar installers and environmental groups would have been on board, but it was a surprise to see Central Maine Power and Emera Maine, two power transmission utilities that have been critical of the way solar customers are compensated for the excess power they produce. The coalition also included the public advocate, the state official charged with representing all ratepayers at the Public Utilities Commission, and lawmakers from both parties.

But there were surprises on the other side as well. Of course, there was Gov. LePage, who is against any renewable electricity that isn’t generated from biomass boilers or hydro dams, and enough Republican stalwarts in the House to sustain a veto.

PRESSURE FROM BIG SOLAR

Alongside the solar skeptics, however, were some of its biggest believers – the national solar installers Sunrun Inc. and SolarCity, which hired lobbyists and made political donations to make sure Maine did not succeed in instituting a way of compensating solar consumers without making them free riders when it comes time to pay for upkeep on the grid.

The reason Big Solar was opposed to the bill isn’t that modernizing Maine’s market for solar energy would have been a bad thing for the state – it wouldn’t have. The new system would have dramatically expanded both the capacity and the type of solar facilities in Maine. It would also have generated an estimated 650 jobs while maintaining around 300 existing jobs and provided the catalyst for millions of dollars in private investment.

But Big Solar didn’t like the bill because it would have protected non-solar customers from cost shifts – thus making the deal for new solar customers a little less sweet. If the bill had worked here, it could have provided an alternative for other states that are also struggling with finding the fairest way to compensate small generators for the renewable power they sell to the grid.

Now the solar question in Maine will leave the Legislature and go to the PUC, whose three members are all appointees of Gov. LePage.

They could decide to eliminate the 20-year-old practice of compensating solar customers for the power they produce, or they could set the price paid to those customers so low that most homeowners and businesses wouldn’t be able to justify investing in solar panels. Then the only people in the market would be people who would install solar for other than economic reasons.

COMMUNITIES RECONSIDER LARGE-SCALE PLANS

In fact, some solar development is going ahead in Maine. Bowdoin and Colby colleges have invested in systems; Madison Electric is building a large project to provide power to its customers, and an installation at the Sanford airport will sell electricity to private clients. But none of these projects relies on credits or excess power revenue to be workable.

Meanwhile, the failure of the effort to reform Maine’s solar regulations has several communities reconsidering plans for large-scale solar projects or shelving them altogether. By installing photoelectric panels on top of capped landfills to provide renewable power to municipal buildings, schools and streetlights, Falmouth, Portland, South Portland and Rockland were hoping to cut municipal electric costs and put to use open space that otherwise has no purpose.

The provisions in the vetoed bill that changed the way solar producers are compensated for excess power they generate and allowed larger projects to offset construction costs would have made the communities’ plans more financially viable. Now town and city officials are waiting and watching for the rules to be clarified.

The collapse of the solar industry in Maine would not make much of a dent in Big Solar’s business. They are more interested in protecting their interests in bigger states.

But their interests and Maine’s are not the same. And hundreds of people who could have gotten good-paying jobs over the next few years will have to wonder why so many local leaders sided with Big Solar and not with them.