Gov. Janet Mills asked federal energy regulators Monday to dismiss a request that she said threatens to scuttle Maine’s authority to oversee a program vital to the operation of solar electric installations at more than 6,000 Maine homes, businesses and municipal facilities.

At issue is whether states or the federal government should control the regulation of net metering, the billing mechanism that credits solar power generators for the electricity they send to the grid. More than 40 states, including Maine, currently administer net metering programs in some form.

But in April, a New Hampshire-based group that claims to represent families and businesses filed a petition with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, which oversees transmission and wholesale electricity sales. The petition, from the New England Ratepayers Association, asks FERC to declare federal jurisdiction over wholesale energy sales generated by customers. It argues that net metering is a subsidy that both increases and shifts utility costs.

But in her letter Monday to FERC’s chairman, Neil Chatterjee, Mills said granting federal jurisdiction would upend longstanding legal precedent for states to regulate retail electric service. As a practical matter, she said, it would put Maine’s existing renewable energy programs at risk.

Cumberland’s new solar array went online in December. Photo courtesy of Eric Fitz

“These projects and future renewable energy deployment are at risk if you do not outright dismiss this petition which creates significant hardship for Maine’s residents and Maine’s economy,” Mills wrote.

A similar statement was issued earlier this month by Maine Public Utilities Commission Chair Phil Bartlett.

“This is a direct assault on state jurisdiction over retail energy rates and design,” Bartlett said, “and FERC should deny the petition outright.”

The Maine PUC has intervened in the case, Bartlett added. The agency that represents utility ratepayers in Maine, the Office of Public Advocate, also filed a formal protest and a brief in opposition.

“We’re in this case all the way,” said Maine Public Advocate Barry Hobbins.

Net metering has been a hot-button issue for years, especially among detractors of renewable energy who say the financial incentives that often are baked into project costs result in higher prices for consumers. Maine was a net metering battleground under the administration of former Gov. Paul LePage, who publicly wished his own PUC appointees would resign in 2017, when they compromised on a net metering rule.

But state policy spun 180 degrees in 2018, when Mills was elected, along with a Legislature controlled by Democrats. In 2019, she signed a law that fully restored net metering benefits that were eroded during the LePage years. Expanding solar energy is a foundation of Mills’ ambitious plans to make Maine a national leader in combating fossil fuel-induced climate change.

But in an interview last month with the online trade publication Daily Energy Insider, the ratepayers group said policies like this in New England shift money to higher-income families that benefit from how their bills are credited under net metering programs.

“Ending these policies will save ratepayers hundreds of millions of dollars in New England and billions of dollars nationwide,” said Marc Brown, the group’s president.

But clean energy and open government advocates say Brown’s group is actually a dark money front for utilities and fossil-fuel interests.

On Monday, Public Citizen said it filed a motion at FERC with documents showing that 15 entities have donated between $5,000 and $20,000 annually to the organization, making up nearly its entire funding.

“Such funding is more representative of an industry trade association than a consumer group defending the interests of households,” Public Citizen said in a news release.

The names of the contributors had been redacted by the ratepayer group. On its website, the group notes: “As a matter of policy, the organization does not disclose its supporters without their express permission.”

The comment period in the FERC case ended Monday. Notably, no utilities filed comments in support of the petition, online trade publication Utility Dive reported Tuesday.

How the agency responds is being followed closely by Maine’s solar industry.

“We’re worried about it, in that even just the petition can have a chilling effect on customers, which obviously is part of the point,” said Fortunat Mueller, a co-founder of ReVision Energy.

ReVision, which does business in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, is working to mobilize a broad coalition in a show of force against the petition, Mueller said.

Joining the opposition Monday was a group representing state regulators, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. It filed a protest against the petition and its president, Brandon Presley, commissioner for the northern district of the Mississippi Public Service Commission, offered this comment:

“This entity, known as NERA, has not provided any specific examples from any state on which it has based its petition, yet wants to falsely assert that net metering programs, rates and regulations in nearly every state are unlawful, placing them under a rigid federal regime.”

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.