The state of Maine is expected to review the way that solar energy system owners are credited for the electricity that they add to the grid, a process known as “net metering.” Solar advocates worry that the the state’s Public Utilities Commission could make changes that would effectively pull the plug on the state’s solar market.
They represent environmental activists and solar system installers, city administrators and dairy farmers, liberals and even conservatives such as former state Rep. Les Fossel. The Alna Republican was among those who added his name to the list of petitioners asking the Maine PUC to maintain the status quo on the state’s current net metering policy for solar energy systems.
“I’m here because this is exceedingly important to me and I believe strongly that when somebody’s right you say so and that when somebody’s wrong — like the governor — you say so,” Fossel says.
Fossel says the Legislature missed an important opportunity when it failed to override Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a bill aimed at replacing the existing net metering arrangement with a new structure, under which regulated utilities would have purchased and aggregated solar generator developers under long-term contracts.
LePage told an Augusta audience Wednesday night that he has one major objection to net metering.
“If you make it market rates, I have no problem,” LePage says. “But if you say above market, raising the price of electricity, it makes no sense. You’re having us pay for somebody that wants to have a solar panel on their roof. The problem with that is: when it’s not sunny, they still have to have another source of electricity, so now they’re paying twice.”
“The governor has chosen a very narrow lens to look at the costs of solar,” says Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
Voorhees says he’s worried that in the absence of a legislatively approved state solar policy, the current net metering system could be adversely affected by a PUC review. All three of the PUC commissioners are LePage appointees, and because the state’s utilities are reaching a cap on the amount of net metered solar energy they can bring in, they could begin a review as soon as this month.
The PUC could choose to keep the existing policy in place, reduce the credit to the wholesale market price or eliminate net metering entirely.
Voorhees says he and others delivered petitions to the PUC urging the commissioners to consider a narrow scope of review and maintain the status quo until lawmakers and stakeholders can craft another bill in the next legislative session. And he says the petitioners have two other requests for the commission.
“The PUC should review both the costs and benefits of net metering taking into account the full value of solar,” Voorhees says. “To prevent greater harm from the uncertainty that is already disrupting the Maine solar market, the PUC should quickly establish that it will not consider changes that would affect existing net metering customers.”
But for some business owners, the pending review of net metering by a LePage-appointed PUC has prompted them to delay plans for any new solar energy systems.
Caitlin Frame, co-owner of The Milkhouse in Monmouth, an organic dairy farm with energy-intensive demands, says she had begun to explore the possibility of installing solar until the bill was vetoed.
“We have put a lot time into researching and applying for the USDA grant available for rural businesses to install solar as well as discussing the financing with our lender,” Frame says. “But now we cannot proceed with this project until we know where net metering will stand in the future in the state of Maine.”
And petitioner Sadie Lloyd, assistant planner with the city of Belfast, says her community had made a major solar investment that will ultimately provide 20 percent of the city’s needs. She says that without net metering, city officials would have never made the investment.