AUGUSTA — The House of Representatives voted Wednesday to give preliminary approval to a bill that encourages development of solar power in Maine, but final passage remains in doubt.

The House voted 81-69 to advance a bill designed to jump-start an industry that has struggled to gain a foothold in Maine and is threatened by a law that could end a key financial incentive for homeowners and businesses that install solar panels on their properties.

Gov. Paul LePage and his allies among House Republicans have staunchly opposed the proposal from the start. That resistance was reflected in Wednesday’s action, as Republicans and two independents voted against the bill.

The House vote total was well below the two-thirds margin that supporters would need to override a LePage veto. But backers are hoping that a planned amendment to the bill – expected to be heard Thursday in the Senate – will win enough Republican support to overcome LePage’s opposition.

The proposed amendment aims to reduce the potential costs borne by ratepayers by capping contract prices, gives the Public Utilities Commission more flexibility with long-term contracts and sets aside some of the reserved allocation to agricultural businesses.

Advocates for the measure, including solar panel installers in the nascent industry, rallied at the State House in hopes of building support among lawmakers. Supporters said the bill would create 800 new jobs while increasing the supply of solar-generated electricity from 18 megawatts to 250 megawatts, about 2 percent of the state’s power needs. Roughly half of the projected growth would come from homes and small businesses.

IMPACT ON RATEPAYERS DISPUTED

Opponents of the bill said it would saddle electricity ratepayers with the costs of subsidizing an industry. The projected impact on ratepayers is disputed.

Mark Vannoy, chairman of the PUC, testified in March that ratepayers could pay a combined $22 million on their electric bills in the fifth year of the plan. That estimate contrasted sharply with the estimates provided by Tim Schneider, the public advocate for ratepayers. Schneider said consumers could see a benefit of more than $122 million over the period of the 20-year contract.

The proposal offers a unique approach to net metering, in which utility companies provide a one-to-one credit to solar customers on their bills for power they generate and feed back into the grid. The practice is under fire in other states, and the bill, if enacted, would replace the current net metering system with hourly metering and a 20-year price guarantee on the rate that businesses and homeowners are compensated for producing electricity. Such a change would likely make Maine the first state in the country to switch to an alternative metering system.

The ratepayer impact dominated the floor debate. Rep. Kenneth Fredette, the House minority leader, tried to frame the proposal as a free-market disruption that would inordinately benefit southern Maine residents while financed by poorer, rural residents. Fredette said he supports renewable energy, but the proposal is “insanity.”

Supporters countered that the bill would help preserve the hundreds of solar installer jobs while encouraging growth in an industry that will further ease Maine’s reliance on fossil fuels and replace lost manufacturing jobs.

The state has roughly 20 megawatts of solar installed now, including 16 megawatts at 1,900 homes and 200 small businesses in Central Maine Power’s service areas.

PUC COULD END NET METERING

Republicans have thrown their support behind having the PUC, whose three members are LePage appointees, decide the fate of net metering. If the Legislature fails to act, Maine has a law saying that the PUC will review net metering rules when solar generation hits 1 percent of a utility’s load. That threshold was crossed in CMP’s service area one day last August.

Advocates of the bill worry that the PUC will eliminate net metering altogether. LePage has frequently railed against the costs of renewable energy and he has taken a keen interest in defeating the bill, which is sponsored by Democratic Rep. Sara Gideon, the assistant House leader from Freeport.

Gideon has said that the bill is a job creator. According to the Solar Foundation, the latest Solar Jobs Census ranked Maine 43rd in the country, with 330 jobs attached to the industry, the largest share of them being installers in Cumberland County. Massachusetts was ranked second with 15,095 jobs.

The proposal requires additional votes in the Senate and House before going to LePage, who has said he will veto it.

Staff Writer Kevin Miller contributed to this report.