The near-term future of rooftop solar energy in Maine is likely to be decided this spring, as lawmakers consider changes to a widely criticized rule approved in January by the Public Utilities Commission.
Two major bills are pending that would supersede the PUC’s approach to compensating homeowners for the solar power they generate, an incentive called net energy billing or net metering. If nothing happens, the PUC rule goes into force in 2018.
Some resolution is important, because uncertainty and disagreement over how Maine will handle net metering is causing prospective customers to balk and businesses to hold off investing and hiring, solar installers say. Installers say the PUC rule, which among other things gradually reduces a portion of the financial incentives, would cripple the nascent industry. Opponents, including Gov. Paul LePage, say the incentive unfairly shifts the cost of solar installations to all electricity consumers.
One bill, sponsored by Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, would preserve the full financial incentives of net metering, and offer rebates to help more homes and businesses generate electricity from the sun. This bill is backed by the Maine Environmental Priorities Coalition, which represents conservation, faith-based and public health groups.
Another bill is due to be sponsored by Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton. It also would preserve full net-metering incentives, but only until a PUC study determines how to use smart electric meters to calculate the value of solar at different times of the day and year. It was developed with help from industry leaders, including ReVision Energy, Maine’s largest solar installer, and SunRun, the nation’s top rooftop solar company.
These bills have yet to be printed and details can change. Other proposals, focused on aspects such as expanding utility and community-scale solar power, also are in the mix and it’s not uncommon for concepts like these to be consolidated into broader bills. Public hearings are likely in mid-to-late April.
But what happens to net metering will generate the most interest and conflict.
GIRDING FOR BATTLE
Rooftop solar is a tiny contributor today to Maine’s generating mix, but it has big potential. Even among divergent political factions, there’s agreement about reducing the state’s dependence on oil. One way to do that is shift more of Maine’s energy use to electricity, with efficient heat pumps and electric vehicles. Solar, eventually coupled with emerging battery technology, could play a role in this transition, supporters say.
The debate over net metering has given voice to supporters of this concept. Hundreds of people gathered last year at a PUC hearing on the net-metering rule, and hundreds more filed written comments.
At the same time, LePage strongly opposes net metering, as well as the compromise phase-out rules the PUC approved in January. He says he’s not against solar, only the compensation system in place for owners who sell their excess power to utilities. He says it shifts the cost of maintaining the electric delivery system to other customers. That compensation adds roughly a nickel to a typical monthly home bill today, but LePage fears the cost will grow if the incentives remain unchanged.
Last year, a comprehensive solar bill that featured a different approach to net metering died after lawmakers failed to override a LePage veto by two votes. For the outcome to change this year, Democrats, Republicans and interest groups will need to reach a consensus.
“There’s so much more at stake if we fail this year,” Berry said. “What the PUC did really forced the Legislature to put up or shut up.”
Berry’s bill would continue to let solar owners get a full, one-to-one credit on the distribution and supply portions of their electric bills. Those credits help homeowners recover the costs of solar-electric panels, which can average $10,000 or so. It also would restore a long-expired rebate program, aimed at creating an additional incentive.
The rebates would total roughly $8 million, stepping down over time. For an average Central Maine Power home bill of $70 a month, the surcharge would add 9 cents in 2017, and 4 cents in 2022. Solar advocates say even that small cost would partially be offset, by reducing the need for expensive power plants to meet peak demand on hot summer days.
Berry said this approach can help Maine move from last place in New England, in terms of solar power use.
“The vast majority of Mainers and legislators understand that we can reduce prices, produce more of our energy and create jobs by supporting the solar industry,” he said.
Saviello’s bill has no rebates, but keeps net metering as is, for now. But it would be modified later, based on the findings of a proposed PUC study that would take a deeper dive into the value of solar at different times. For instance: Power is worth more in the late afternoon on a hot summer day. Smart electric meters could track rooftop solar generation by the minute, and use those data for compensation and billing.
James Cote, a lobbyist promoting the bill on behalf of the Northern New England Solar Industry Alliance, says this approach recognizes that net metering isn’t a long-term answer. But if people can agree on the value of solar, he says, they are more likely to agree to a more-precise form of compensation.
Reminded that the PUC already did a 2015 study on the value of solar, and that supporters and opponents reached different conclusions from the data, Cote said it’s time to try again.
“I don’t think we need to settle for a bad rule,” he said.
Passing any new solar law would require buy-in from Republican lawmakers, many of whom sided last year with LePage. That would include Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, the House minority leader. A frequent ally of LePage, Fredette worked against the Democrat-led solar bill last year.
Through the House Republican Office, Fredette was asked whether he supported the PUC rule, whether he plans to submit any solar legislation of his own, and his reaction to the two solar bills, but he didn’t respond.
Beyond power costs, advocates also will make a renewed case for the economic development potential of solar.
The latest figures from The Solar Foundation, a national advocacy group, show Maine has 572 jobs tied to the industry and ranks 27th per capita. Massachusetts has 14,582 jobs and is first per capita; New Hampshire has 1,184 and is ranked 14th. Nationally, solar jobs grew by 25 percent in 2016 over the previous year, according to the foundation’s annual census. They now total 260,077.
Steve Weems, who heads the newly formed Solar Energy Association of Maine, said his group wants to frame the debate to focus on the vision of an increasingly electrified world.
“If we’re going to electrify,” Weems said, “you want a system as local and low-cost as possible. Over time, that’s going to include solar. So short term, we need some incentives to move the dial in that direction.”
Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or