Earlier this year, a stakeholders group showed Maine how government is supposed to work.

Tasked with finding a fair way to expand the state’s solar energy portfolio, representatives of interests that did not agree on much hammered out a compromise plan that would expand capacity while sharing the benefits among all ratepayers. Their ideas were drafted into a bill, and it passed both houses of the Legislature with strong bipartisan support.

Then Gov. LePage and his allies in the Maine House of Representatives showed us how – all too often – government really does work. LePage vetoed the bill, and House Republican leaders made sure that it fell two votes short of the two-thirds required to override, dumping a year’s work out the window.

Now we are seeing the consequences of that vote. The Maine Public Utilities Commission, made up of three LePage appointees, is proposing the phase-out of net energy billing, also known as net metering, the one program Maine has to encourage solar investment.

WRONG DIRECTION

This is the wrong policy. It creates uncertainty for investors that would kill jobs in the solar industry, a rare bright spot in the Maine economy because of its potential for growth. Slowing solar expansion also means that the dirtiest electric plants will continue to come online in the summer to meet peak demand, contributing to air pollution and the greenhouse gas emissions that are changing the climate.

But not only is this the wrong policy, it’s also the wrong process.

The PUC is treating this about-face as a technical change to the rules and something that it can do on its own. Since the politician who appointed the commissioners has a well-known prejudice against solar energy, this is a problem.

The executive branch has a role to play in developing energy policy, but it should not be the entire show. This issue should go back to the Legislature in January, where representatives of a broad range of Maine people can build on the work that has already been done by the stakeholders group and move the state in the right direction.

The best analysis of the issue is the Value of Solar Study, commissioned by the PUC in 2014 and conducted by an independent consultant. Because solar investment decreases demand for generation and transmission, and because it benefits the environment, the study’s authors concluded that the power it produces would have a value of 33.7 cents per kilowatt-hour, much more than the 7 cents- to 13 cents-per-kwh rate at which solar customers are credited.

If the environmental benefits are not counted, the avoided costs alone would represent a value of 17 cents – still less than the rate at which utilities compensate solar producers. It’s a good deal.

But conversion to solar won’t happen fast enough without the right financial incentives, even though the technology has dramatically come down in price. The insecurity that has come from merely talking about eliminating net metering has already discouraged investment. Slowing solar expansion not only kills jobs, but also hurts all Mainers by forcing them to buy dirtier and more expensive electricity during the summer peak.

WORKING ELSEWHERE

Many states accept that logic and have put programs in place to make it easier to finance solar power. New York state, for example, has tax incentives and assistance for low-income customers who install solar, as well as net metering. For renters and others who cannot install solar panels where they live, the state also offers the option of belonging to community solar farms, saving these customers money and reducing demand for power.

New York now has about twice as much solar power as Maine on a per capita basis, and is anxious to bring on more. Massachusetts now produces 10 times more per capita solar power than Maine, and its Legislature passed a renewable energy law this year that will expand it even more.

These are complicated issues, and what’s done in other states may not make sense here. Pushing too far in one direction could have negative consequences elsewhere. But balancing many interests in a policy for the whole state is what the Legislature is for. This is not a one-man job, no matter what the governor thinks.

For the benefit of our environment and our economy, Maine deserves to have a modern solar policy that facilitates more home-grown renewable energy. The Legislature should take back the lead on this issue and make the state government function the right way.