AUGUSTA – The Maine House upheld Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a bill on solar energy, potentially marking the third straight year of defeat for solar advocates in the Legislature.

In what appears to be an annual tradition at the State House, a bill to change Maine’s solar energy policies passed both legislative chambers by healthy margins only to lose votes in the House when LePage remanded it back to the Legislature. In the most recent example, supporters fell three votes short of overriding LePage’s veto of a bill that would have prohibited utilities from requiring that solar energy users install a second meter to monitor their electricity generation.

Bill supporters say not only would the meters allow utilities to charge a fee for solar energy that homeowners generate, but all ratepayers across the state would be forced to help pay the costs of installing those meters.

Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said drafters heard the concerns raised in previous years about the policy of “net metering” in which utilities were required to pay the full retail rate for excess solar energy that homeowners feed back into the power grid. Net metering would still be phased out under the current bill, L.D. 1444. But Berry said allowing Central Maine Power or Emera Maine to charge a fee for solar energy generated privately would be akin to a grocery store charging for produce a person grows in a garden or a plumber charging for a leak fixed by a homeowner.

“If we fail to act, Maine will become the first place in the world to charge you a fee for producing and using energy in your own home or business and never touching CMP or Emera’s grid,” Berry said.

But in his veto message, LePage wrote the bill changes definitions that could affect the Public Utilities Commission’s plans to begin phasing out the “subsidy” utilities pay solar energy system customers under net metering, also known as net energy billing. LePage suggested those changes could effectively “undo the PUC’s decision to reduce the subsidy over time” and that other changes would allow more solar customers to use utility lines and infrastructure without paying for it.

“As I have noted many times, (net energy billing) subsidizes the cost of solar panels for the rich at the expense of the elderly and the poor who can least afford it,” LePage wrote. “Making a bad situation worse is not the answer.”

LePage has successfully vetoed two other bills in previous years that sought to encourage more solar generation in the state and preserve net metering. Solar energy supporters argue LePage’s stance is hurting a clean-energy industry that is thriving elsewhere, squelching good-paying jobs for skilled laborers and merely sustaining Maine’s reliance on fossil fuels. But LePage and his Republican allies – primarily in the conservative House Republican caucus – say net metering and other policies are merely forcing all ratepayers to bear the costs of solar energy systems installed on the homes of more affluent Mainers.

Thursday’s House debate fell along similar lines.

Rep. Jeffrey Hanley, R-Pittston, said none of the trailer parks in his district feature solar panels. Instead, panels are always installed on homes of the wealthy.

“I am not against solar power,” Hanley said. “Anyone who wishes to put it in, put it in. Just pay for it yourself. Don’t look at others to do that.”

But bill supporters said the PUC rules – which are deeply unpopular in the solar industry and among solar customers – are already phasing out the controversial net metering policies. Instead, they accused utilities of attempting to squeeze more money out of solar customers and all ratepayers through the fee charged for electricity generated by homeowners.

Rep. Heather Sanborn, D-Portland, said it will cost ratepayers an estimated $1.5 million to install the additional meters in the first year and $3 million in the second year. Those costs far would outstrip the “recovery” savings given back to ratepayers as part of the policy. So Sanborn said those who support the governor’s veto are actually voting to potentially increase electricity rates.

“Whatever you’ve been told about what this bill will do in terms of the effect on ratepayers, make no mistake that if you vote to sustain (the veto), you are voting to raise the cost of electricity in Maine,” said Sanborn.

After the 97-52 vote, Democratic leaders used a parliamentary procedure to lay the bill back on the table. That means they will likely attempt to flip votes in the coming days, especially targeting six Republicans who voted for the bill on passage but with LePage on the veto. Similar efforts have failed to reverse the outcome on the solar bills spiked by LePage during the two previous legislative sessions, however.