The Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation filed a notice of appeal Monday challenging the Maine Public Utilities Commission’s recent decision to ratchet down financial incentives for residential solar energy development.

The appeal was filed with the Maine Supreme Judicial Court during the same week that the Legislature plans to hear testimony on a bill designed to overturn the PUC’s January order and restore previous financial incentives for home solar power installation.

Under the PUC’s new rule, homeowners with solar-electric panels already installed as of Dec. 31, 2017, will be compensated for the power they add to Maine’s electrical grid at the current, full retail rate for 15 years, but those who install solar panels over the next decade will see that credit gradually reduced over time.

The reasoning behind the change, the PUC has said, is to try to match financial incentives with the expected pace of falling equipment prices, thereby maintaining a similar return on investment for homeowners.

But in its appeal, the foundation argues that the PUC’s justifications for rolling back solar incentives are unsupported by facts and based on a “selective analysis of only certain evidence.”

It also argues that the rollback violates the Legislature’s current solar energy policy and that it constitutes discrimination against solar users. It alleges that the PUC exceeded its statutory authority in approving the change, and that it failed to meet reporting requirements related to the fiscal and economic impacts of its decision.

PUC administrative director Harry Lanphear said Monday that the commission does not comment on pending litigation. He instead referred the Portland Press Herald to the PUC order on the solar incentive reduction and subsequent materials released by the commission.

One such document, a guide to frequently asked questions issued in March, explains that under the previous rule, ratepayers that don’t own solar panels were paying for infrastructure such as poles and wires that solar panel owners use to import and export electricity to and from the grid. The new rule reduces that inequity over time, it says.

It goes on to explain that homeowners installing solar panels in 2018 still will receive 90 percent of the market rate for the electricity they introduce into the grid for 15 years, followed by 80 percent of the market rate for 15 years if they install solar in 2019, and so on.

The downward shift in incentives still will allow residential solar panel owners to recoup the cost of their investment over the relevant 15-year period based on the falling price of solar panels, the PUC document says.

Still, the January rule change was immediately condemned by a newly formed coalition of solar installers, which called it “unworkable, onerous, and costly for ratepayers” and said it would cost jobs. Co-founded by ReVision Energy of Portland, the state’s largest solar installer, and San Francisco-based SunRun, the country’s largest rooftop company, the Northern New England Solar Industry Alliance urged the Legislature to step in and correct the PUC’s action. It called for “a long-term, balanced solar policy that recognizes solar’s value, rather than just slapping on a short-term bandage policy that will undoubtedly be subject to more political volatility in the near future.”

LEGISLATIVE ACTION

Lawmakers, aided by clean-energy advocates, solar panel installers and other interested parties, have drafted several bills this session dealing with various aspects of solar energy, including “net metering,” the common term for compensating customers who export excess solar energy to the grid.

The Legislature is expected to hear testimony this week on one such bill, L.D. 1373, which is designed to overturn the PUC’s latest order.

“Net metering has made it possible for thousands of Maine homeowners and business owners to own and produce their own solar power,” Judy Berk of the Natural Resources Council of Maine said in a statement Monday. L.D. 1373 “gets Maine on track for solar power by protecting and expanding access to solar by protecting net metering and re-establishing Maine’s solar energy rebate program.”

The Natural Resources Council said it plans to host a rally at 12:45 p.m. Thursday at the State House complex in Augusta immediately prior to the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee’s public hearing on the bill at 1 p.m.

Conservation Law Foundation staff attorney Emily Green said Monday that Maine already lags behind other states when it comes to residential solar installation, and that the PUC rule change will only make matters worse.

She said that, although the foundation is hopeful that the problem will be resolved through legislation, it filed the appeal Monday in order to meet a court-mandated deadline.

“We certainly hope and remain optimistic that the Legislature is going to implement a strong solar policy for the state,” Green said. “That policy should be made at the legislative level.”

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at:

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Twitter: jcraiganderson

Correction: This article was updated at 8:21 a.m. on May 3 to clarify PUC administrative director Harry Lanphear’s response to questions about the Conservation Law Foundation appeal.