AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage said Friday that he believes the three members of Maine’s Public Utilities Commission should resign and called for expanding the panel’s membership in response to a solar energy decision that he predicted will have “a devastating impact on the state.”

However, advocates for Maine’s solar industry dismissed the governor’s statements while predicting that the PUC decision did not go far enough and will limit – not foster – solar energy’s growth in the state.

Employing a prop of two model houses to illustrate his point, LePage suggested that the PUC’s recent decision to continue offering financial incentives for rooftop solar panels will benefit only solar energy customers and the solar industry, not the average ratepayer. LePage said the decision to continue a form of net-energy billing, “net metering” – in which homeowners receive credits on their electricity bills for excess solar energy they feed back into the grid – will lead to a massive expansion in the solar industry and, in the process, make Maine even less competitive for businesses.

LePage said he would “ask them to resign in a heartbeat” and he repeated a statement that, if he had the authority, he would fire all three appointees.

“I will tell you, and I make no bones about it, I am enormously disappointed in the PUC,” LePage said. “Those were all appointments that I have made. I thought that they understood that my only request, my only request on energy was this: Lower the cost and do no harm to the environment.”

The three commissioners – chairman Mark Vannoy, Bruce Williamson and Carlisle McLean – declined to comment through a PUC spokesman. While LePage cannot remove commissioners during their terms, he will have an opportunity to fill one of the three seats with a new appointee when McLean’s term ends in March. McLean was LePage’s chief legal counsel and senior natural resources policy adviser before joining the commission in February 2015 to complete an unexpired term.

In a decision Jan. 31, the three-member PUC sought to find middle ground on net metering, which was the focus of a contentious political fight between the Legislature, LePage and different segments of the industry last year.

The PUC said homeowners who already have solar panels can continue to be paid at the full retail rate for the power they produce for 15 years. Those who install solar energy systems in 2018 or later would see the credits gradually reduced over time.

Solar installation companies and representatives of Maine’s environmental community believe the PUC decision will cost jobs and said it creates more “political volatility” around a growing industry.

“Maine is already dead-last in New England for the solar industry and the PUC decision … is going to take us backward,” said Phil Coupe, co-founder of the state’s largest solar installation company, ReVision Energy. “It is going to chill the appetite of people for solar because it diminishes their return on investment.”

Solar energy represents a tiny fraction of the energy production in Maine, and the net metering credits or incentives now add a relatively small amount onto ratepayers’ bills. Central Maine Power, for instance, estimated that solar net metering cost ratepayers $1.3 million in 2015, although LePage said he believes the total amount for all utilities is now closer to $7 million.

LePage often blames solar energy, PUC decisions and lawmakers for driving up electricity prices. While Maine has the least expensive retail electricity prices in New England, it ranks 11th highest in the nation. But Maine’s small solar industry is not responsible for a dramatic shift in costs.

Instead, some larger electricity users in southern and central Maine have seen their costs rise by, on average, 19 percent since last summer as a result of a complicated series of events that drove up delivery charges on Central Maine Power Co. bills. Those factors include the conclusion of refunds for transmission line investments, additional money for the Efficiency Maine Trust and a pause in federal damage awards of lawsuits over defunct nuclear plants such as Maine Yankee in Wiscasset.

Asked how the PUC decision contributed to significant price increases given the small size of Maine’s solar industry, LePage clarified that he is concerned about future prices since some level of net metering will continue through 2042.

“The reason I am so concerned is this opens up an industry that is going to skyrocket. Everybody is going to get these subsidies,” LePage said. “It’s going to be a runaway industry and we are going to (have) stranded costs forever. We’d never get out of it. So as of today, it’s not a big industry, but it will be this summer” because people will be rushing to install solar panels before the 2018 cutoff.

Nationwide, many homeowners who install solar energy panels rely on some form of net metering to help them recoup or offset the high, up-front installation costs. Those policies, combined with a dramatic drop in the prices for solar energy technology, have led to a national boom in which the industry has seen an annual growth rate of 60 percent for the past decade, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association trade group.

As of last year, New England had roughly 1,774 megawatts of installed solar capacity, led by Massachusetts with 1,241 megawatts, Connecticut with 273 megawatts and Vermont with 154. Maine had by far the least of the six states, at 20 megawatts.

LePage had made lowering energy costs a top priority of his two terms on grounds that Maine’s higher costs threaten the state’s manufacturing sector and limit future economic growth. The Republican often dismisses the potential of the wind and solar energy industries – two bright spots in the state’s economy in recent years – because he contends that they are not cost-competitive.

“You are building an industry that doesn’t pay for itself,” LePage said Friday, adding that industry growth will only create temporary construction jobs.

Such statements anger renewable-energy advocates.

A 2015 PUC study suggested solar energy would have greater total monetary value – when environmental and social benefits are included – than conventional power generation if the technology were widely adopted. That is because solar energy systems reduce the costs of building or maintaining transmission and distribution infrastructure, natural gas pipelines, voltage regulation and environmental impacts involved in traditional electricity generation.

Coupe accused LePage of “repeatedly ignoring the facts of the world” as he proposes policies hostile to renewable energy and casts the solar energy industry as a burden on all ratepayers. In fact, Coupe pointed to a January 2016 study by the federal government’s National Renewable Energy Lab that showed Maine as having the second-highest percentage in the nation of installation of small-scale, low-priced solar energy systems.

“What that signals is that we are an incredibly efficient and lean industry in Maine, and we have to be, to survive in this LePage era,” Coupe said. “This myth that there are a few guys who are lining their pockets at the expense of ratepayers is complete rubbish.”

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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