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As Solar Power Hits Milestone, Maine Utility Wants to End 'Net Metering' Policy

An important milestone has been reached in the growth of solar electricity in Maine. There are enough residential and commercial solar power producers in Central Maine Power territory to account for as much as one percent of CMP’s load on peak demand days.

The one percent number shows the industry’s growing importance in the state’s energy mix — but it also triggers a new regulatory review that has some solar supporters nervous.

One hot day last summer — Aug. 19, to be exact — demand for electricity by CMP customers rose to its peak for the year: almost 1,600 megawatts to run all those air conditioners set on high. As it happened, some 1,900 residential solar arrays — and 200 institutional installations — were soaking up enough sunshine to power their own needs and to put 16 megawatts of energy back on the grid.

And because of a decades-old policy known as “net metering,” those solar power generators all got a credit on their utility bill to compensate for the power they supplied to the grid.

“It shows that net metering is working for ratepayers in Maine,” says Chris Rauscher, who was until recently an energy policy advisor to U.S. Sen. Angus King. Now he’s policy director for a national solar company called Sun Run, and he’s paying close attention to the industry’s potential in Maine.

He’s nervous that transmission utilities such as CMP will move to abolish the net metering policy altogether, as recently happened in Nevada.

“Utilities around the country are trying to kill rooftop solar and net metering because utilities are monopolies, and it’s the only form of competition they’ve faced in over 100 years,”

CMP spokesman John Carroll says more growth in the sector could put investor profits at risk. But more importantly, he says, customers who do not participate in net metering are subsidizing those who do, by paying more for the upkeep and operation of the grid.

“A net metering customer, because they basically turn their meter backward as they are producing electricity, may benefit fully by taking all the electricity they need when they need it and then essentially unwind or back out what they should be paying for that service through the net metering process,” Carroll says. “In the end they may end up paying far less than their share of the benefit for the grid.”

The argument is likely to get intense in coming months. CMP notified the state’s Public Utilities Commission Thursday that the one percent threshold had been reached in 2015 and called for a review of the policy as required by law.

The commission is likely to do so as part of a stakeholder process that began a few months ago.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.