AUGUSTA — House lawmakers gave initial approval Wednesday to a bill that delays new solar energy “net metering” rules and directs utility regulators to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the controversial policy.

But supporters failed to garner the two-thirds majority needed to overcome an all-but-guaranteed veto from Gov. Paul LePage, once again casting doubt over solar policy in Maine. The bill faces additional votes in both legislative chambers.

The 90-54 vote in the Maine House followed roughly an hour of debate on a bill that springs from the failure of more sweeping solar energy policy changes proposed during the last legislative session. One year later, it is clear that the political parties and interest groups remain deeply divided on a type of renewable energy that has been growing in Maine, but at a slower pace than in many other states.

“One year ago, everyone said the sky would fall on solar and now I am seeing more installations, more solar than ever before,” said Rep. Nathan Wadsworth, R-Hiram, an opponent of the compromise endorsed by the House on Wednesday.

SEEKING A PATH FORWARD

The bill, L.D. 1504, would direct the Public Utilities Commission to perform a cost-benefit analysis on net-energy billing – or net metering – in which electric companies compensate homeowners and small businesses at the full retail rate for the power they generate from solar arrays. The bill would effectively put on hold a controversial decision the PUC rendered this year to gradually phase out net metering for owners of solar energy installations in the state.

Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said the bill will benefit utility customers over the long term because it represents a compromise among solar installers, large and small electric users, municipalities and other groups.

“This compromise amendment will put Maine ratepayers ahead of international (utility) investors in controlling our energy destiny,” said Berry, co-chair of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, which spent weeks working on the solar bill. “It will provide a path forward that can encourage competition and a new smart grid and lower energy rates for all of us. Of all of the options before us, only this compromise amendment would provide this pathway forward.”

Opponents, meanwhile, repeated their arguments that net metering is merely a way for wealthier homeowners who can afford to install solar panels to pass those costs along to all ratepayers. They predicted that the long-term impact will be higher electricity rates and, therefore, fewer jobs at energy-intensive industries in Maine.

“The solar industry may produce some jobs that benefit them, but the burden is how many jobs will be lost when a false market is created,” said Rep. Beth O’Connor, R-Berwick. “It would be very irresponsible to adopt policy that will hurt our remaining businesses and ratepayers to benefit a few.”

But supporters pointed out that many of Maine’s large, industrial electricity users support the compromise bill, despite opponents’ portrayal of the bill as a job-killer in Maine’s industrial sector.

Rep. James Handy, D-Lewiston, read from an email from an executive at Geiger Inc., a speciality products manufacturer in Lewiston with 500 employees that will soon begin construction on a 300-kilowatt solar array that will provide 100 percent of the company’s electricity needs. Geiger supports the bill because “it is the right thing to do for our state,” according to the email from CEO Gene Geiger.

The bill faces additional votes in the House and Senate, which adopted a different version this week without debate. And supporters will need to pick up more supporters if they want to override a veto from LePage, a vocal critic of net metering. LePage’s successful veto of a more sweeping re-write of Maine’s solar policy last year set the stage for the PUC rules phasing out net metering, although the governor subsequently blasted the commissioners for not going far enough and predicted the rules will increase electricity rates.

Environmental organizations were declaring a partial victory Wednesday while acknowledging the issue was far from resolved and that failure will result in the PUC rules taking effect next year.

“That rule increases near-term costs for all electricity consumers in Maine – residents, businesses, and farms – by millions of dollars, and threatens good solar jobs, too,” said Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “A vote in favor of L.D. 1504, which would overturn the PUC’s terrible anti-solar rule, should be a no-brainer for lawmakers looking out for their constituents. Republicans, especially in the House, will need to decide whether to side with Gov. LePage or to side with Maine electricity users and progress on solar power for Maine.”

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

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