AUGUSTA — A parade of proponents turned out Thursday at a public hearing for a bill that would greatly expand community solar farms in Maine.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. David Woodsome, R-Waterboro, said that developing 120 megawatts of new solar capacity over four years would create many new jobs and generate enough electricity, on a sunny day, at least, to power nearly 20,000 homes.

Advocates that included environmental groups and solar installers noted that many Mainers can’t install solar panels on their own homes for multiple reasons, such as a shady roof or because they lack the federal income tax liability to take advantage of solar credits. By buying a share in a community solar farm, they would have access to stable electricity rates, reduce the state’s need for costly new transmission lines and help support a growing industry.

But that enthusiasm wasn’t shared by Gov. Paul LePage’s acting energy director, Angela Monroe. She said the bill could end up costing Mainers millions of dollars over time. And because the power generated in Maine already is largely made from renewable sources, she said, the bill is unneeded.

Also finding fault with the proposal was Central Maine Power Co. Its concerns were more focused, such as pointing out that the lack of a cap on the rate offered by solar developers might leave customers paying above-market electricity rates.

Thursday’s hearing was about community solar, but it offered a preview of the battle line that’s likely to set up in the coming weeks, as the Legislature tackles the issue of how – or whether – to encourage greater solar energy development in Maine.

Woodsome’s bill is the first in a string of proposals that seek to expand solar energy use.

Another measure that includes similar elements is focused on farms and forest-product businesses. It has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.

Next Thursday, a bill that would fully preserve the financial incentive known as net-energy billing, or net metering, is due for a hearing. That bill also would give rebates to homes and businesses to encourage more solar installations. It’s likely to be the most contentious solar proposal to come before lawmakers this spring. Environmental groups are planning a noon rally outside the Cross Office Building prior to the hearing.

Behind these and other bills is the contention that Maine is lagging other New England states in solar output, and missing opportunities to create jobs and reduce dependence on fossil fuels and the impact of climate change. Clean-energy advocates blame LePage, who last year vetoed a comprehensive solar bill, and the Public Utilities Commission, which enacted a rule last winter that gradually cuts net metering benefits. Solar installers say the phase down and other elements of the PUC’s rule will cripple their industry.

But LePage is strongly against net metering, saying it unfairly shifts costs to other ratepayers. He and his political allies, mostly Republicans, can be expected to fight any plans they see as adding to electricity bills.

That’s why the solar industry and its supporters have a lot riding on what happens in the Legislature this spring, and why there’s pressure to find compromises that can withstand potential vetoes from LePage. If Thursday’s hearing is any indication, that won’t be easy.

The community bill aims to allow home and small-business customers – and to a lesser extent, towns and cities – get a share of their electricity from large solar farms. It makes it easier for people who want power from the sun, but don’t have a clear southerly exposure where they live, for example, to invest in renewable energy.

GROWTH LIMITED

Maine already has several community solar projects. But other states have many more, and growth here has been limited by an arbitrary rule that caps membership in each farm at 10 electric customers.

The bill greatly expands the potential by directing the Public Utilities Commission to enter into 20-year contracts for 120 megawatts of community solar by 2022 in increments of 30 megawatts a year. In 2018, the Natural Resources Council of Maine estimates, the new output would roughly equal the total amount of solar electricity being generated today in Maine.

This power would be purchased though a contracting arrangement approved by the PUC. According to an analysis by the Public Advocate’s Office, the cost of buying the power would increase overall rates by $6 million a year, 30 cents a month on a typical monthly electricity bill, in 2022. Over 20 years, Public Advocate Tim Schneider testified, it wouldn’t add any new costs to ratepayers.

NUMBERS CHALLENGED

Cost projections always are controversial in the energy world, and Monroe came armed with her own numbers. She made a rough estimate that Mainers could pay between $62 million and $247 million more over 20 years. As did CMP, she also noted the lack of a cap for the power contracts.

Monroe’s calculations were challenged by Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham. Berry is a co-chair of the committee that handles energy matters and the prime sponsor of the net-meter solar bill due for a hearing Thursday. After some back and forth, Monroe acknowledged that her estimates represented a range of possibilities and that it was possible that community approach could save ratepayers money. The exchange foreshadowed the difficulty the full Legislature will face in nailing down hard numbers, and that political values and ideology will again play a large role in the future of solar energy growth in Maine.

Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

[email protected]

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