Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, has lost count of the number of emails he has received recently with the subject line: “Please stop attacks against solar.”

“My inbox is full,” Berry, who co-chairs the legislative committee that handles energy and utility matters, said this week.

Berry and other committee members are hearing from residents who are worried about the future of solar energy policy in Maine. The digital deluge is part of an organized campaign to oppose three Republican-sponsored bills that would roll back or dilute recent laws that are fueling a statewide explosion of solar installations. The bills are set for an online public hearing Tuesday.

Solar power is a cornerstone of Maine’s renewable energy surge. It’s critical to the Mills’ administration’s multifaceted climate action plan.

But even some staunch supporters, such as Berry, agree that it’s time to review the costs and benefits of the state’s solar policies, as one response to a report last fall that found they would lead to higher bills for electricity ratepayers. He is introducing a resolve that would place a short moratorium on the financial incentives program, called net energy billing, that supports smaller-scale projects until a group of stakeholders can examine the details.

His measure excludes projects that began seeking approvals before Jan. 1. That’s crucial, according to Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association. His group represents companies that are putting hundreds of millions of dollars into clean-energy development and are planning further investments. They’ll be watching the Legislature closely for any signs that Maine may change its welcoming stance.

“If we change the rules in the middle of the game, it will be very damaging at the wrong moment,” Payne said. “If we send the wrong signal, they will leave.”

FROM FAMINE TO FEAST

Memories linger, Payne said, over how former Gov. Paul LePage’s opposition to subsidies for a demonstration, floating offshore wind project led the Norwegian company formerly known as Statoil to drop its plan for Maine and build a $120 million wind farm off the coast of Scotland in 2015.

But the financial incentives that have put Maine on the radar of clean-energy developers across the globe aren’t being shared equitably with electricity customers, in the view of Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle. He’s introducing measures that would eliminate the net energy billing program and cap the value of certain clean-energy contracts. Stewart said he doesn’t want to kill the solar industry, just make the benefits more fair.

“These solar developers from across the world aren’t coming to Maine because of the lobster,” he said. “They are coming because of the overgenerous policies enacted in the last Legislature.”

This unprecedented activity is being spurred by policies and laws enacted since 2019, aimed at encouraging a rapid shift away from oil and gas to renewable electric power for running cars and heating buildings. The state’s new Climate Action Plan, a blueprint for how to electrify Maine’s economy and prepare for a changing climate, strongly encourages solar development.

Another law aimed at upgrading the state’s renewable portfolio standard, which requires electricity suppliers to get an increasing percentage of power from “green” generators, attracted several utility-scale solar projects last year. They signed contracts for consumer-friendly rates with the Maine Public Utilities Commission. A second round of bids is currently in motion.

So many solar projects are pending that it has taxed the ability of Central Maine Power to connect them all. The PUC has opened an investigation into the root cause.

POLICY TOO GENEROUS?

Those events represent a 180-degree change in direction from policies embraced during the LePage years, which sought to undermine solar.

But the solar boom hasn’t come without concerns.

Last fall, the PUC presented a report to Berry’s committee that found the current net energy billing program would lead to a “substantial increase in electric rates” for customers. That would have a negative impact on state goals to shift heating from oil to efficient electric units, the PUC said.

The report found, for instance, that the compensation developers were getting under net energy billing for smaller, so-called distributed generation projects was many times higher than large-scale projects – 15 cents per kilowatt hour, compared with 3.5 cents.

That report has come under fire from solar advocates. They say it was superficial and assumed that every project that has expressed some interest would be built. At the upcoming hearing, representatives of community solar companies are expected to cite research from a fresh study by a consultant that shows a more favorable value for customers.

Taken together, those different takes on solar will inform discussion over issues such as:

• Should there be some sort of cap, perhaps in megawatt capacity, on ratepayer exposure to increased costs from power contracts?

• Should there be incentives to site solar in locations where it’s most advantageous, such as old landfills or where it strengthens the local distribution system?

• Should there be incentives to pair solar projects with battery storage, which would increase the capacity and value of intermittent energy?

OPPOSITION BILLS

But preceding any such decisions will be an initial round of political wrangling.

A couple of the bills being presented by Republicans are extreme. They’re unlikely to gain any traction with a Legislature and administration dominated by solar-supporting Democrats.

L.D. 583, presented by Rep. Jeffrey Hanley, R-Pittson, would essentially repeal the current solar law. L.D. 249, offered by Stewart, would roll back the current net energy billing law. Stewart also has a bill, L.D. 634, to cap the value of contracts under the renewable portfolio standard.

But just the threat of those bills was enough to rally the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a strong solar advocate. It sent out an action alert to its 25,000 supporters, with form letters they could send to energy committee members to voice their concerns. That’s what is flooding Berry’s inbox.

“We just think the three bills are a direct attack on clean energy and solar in Maine,” said David Costello, the group’s climate and clean-energy director.

Stewart said he recognizes that an absolute repeal of solar programs is a nonstarter. But the pendulum has swung too far since the LePage days, he said, and Maine needs to find a balance. At the least, his bills will help frame a conversation.

“I don’t have an issue with some solar,” he said. “I just don’t want low-income and elderly folks to pay for the investments of out-of-state companies.”

HEARING TUESDAY

Berry said his bill, L.D. 709, which asks the Governor’s Energy Office to set up a stakeholder group to look at net energy billing issues around projects in the 2- to 5-megawatt range, could help optimize the existing law.

Berry also noted that many residents who can’t afford rooftop solar, or don’t have a proper home orientation, are now able to sign up for the wave of community solar projects enabled by the solar laws. Those projects save money on electric bills, while creating jobs and investment across the state.

“We don’t need to throw out the baby with the bathwater,” he said.

Whatever happens Tuesday, it will be just the start of a process to refine Maine’s solar laws, said Sen. Mark Lawrence, D-York.

Lawrence, who co-chairs the energy committee with Berry, wants the state to encourage a mix of smaller, distributed generation projects; large, utility-scale solar farms and strategic battery storage to make the most of the generation. Tuesday’s public hearing will mark a first step.

“We do need some tweaks, we do need some changes,” Lawrence said. “The issue for the committee is to assess what’s going on and how to keep on a path to grow solar in Maine.”

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.