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Lawmakers Disagree on Solar Power Regulations

Maine’s solar power industry is in trouble – that’s the word from advocates who say Republicans and the administration of Governor Paul LePage are ready to kill efforts to preserve and expand renewable energy here. But some Republicans and LePage’s chief energy advisor say they are trying to find a way to allow solar energy to stay in the state’s mix without adding what they say are unfair costs to everyone’s electric bills.

For months stakeholders have been working to find consensus on how to update the state’s solar power regulations, which are decades old. Solar power contractors, utilities, environmentalists, lawmakers and the state’s public advocate put together a consensus bill they say would boost the technology’s use in Maine without forcing electricity consumers who choose not to use solar to pay a subsidy for it.

But when the proposal came to a committee vote this week, only Democrats voted in favor, with Republicans backing alternatives that industry proponents like Vaughan Woodruff, a Pittsfield solar installer, say are no help at all.

“What’s happened is the governor and his supporters have taken this as an opportunity to kill the solar industry in Maine,” says Woodruff.

LePage has made no secret of his skepticism about solar power. He often points out that it’s dark out half the time. And he also objects to a regulatory policy known known as “Net Metering”, which can result in subsidizing the price solar generators get when they put excess electricity on the grid.

“Buy solar and go on solar. Why do you need us in there? For those of us who don’t want it, we don’t want to buy it,” says LePage.

Chuck Piper owns a solar power installation company in Searsport. He and other members of the consensus group say 800 jobs would be created if the bill is adopted. It does away with Net Metering over time and instead requires the state to procure more solar power through long-term contracts. That would expand residential use of rooftop solar arrays, advocates say, and it would encourage construction of much larger solar projects that could drive down electricity costs for all ratepayers.

Public Advocate Tim Schneider, the man LePage appointed to act as a watchdog for electricity ratepayers says the consensus proposal would save money when compared to the current net metering rules. Solar power users could still get above-market rates for excess electricity they put on the grid, rates high enough to support solar installations – but Maine ratepayers would recoup much or all of that difference when premiums all New England consumers pay for renewable energy are factored in, while costs would be shared fairly across all customers.

“We think the benefits of the bill exceed the costs. That’s why we supported it,” says Schneider. “That’s the only reason I could support it. And moreover we think its definitely preferable to the status quo of Net Metering.”

If, however, the Legislature fails to make any changes, even the status quo might not survive. That’s because the state’s Public Utilities Commission is likely to take up Net Metering rules this year. As LePage appointees, the panel is expected to reform Net Metering – and possibly end all solar-friendly regulations.

Vaughn Woodruff, the Pittsfield solar installer says that happened in Nevada recently, throwing the industry there into turmoil and upending the budgets of thousands of residential solar users who depended on Net Metering to help pay for the upfront cost of installing solar arrays in the first place.

“See what’s happened in Nevada where companies have laid off person after person as a result of their public utilities commission making an unfavorable ruling as it relates to Net Metering,” says Woodruff.

But LePage’s energy chief, Patrick Woodcock, says the Nevada experience may be instructive. Woodcock says solar power generators should be fairly compensated for electricity they put on the grid. He says there’s room for rules that encourage bigger and even grid-scale solar generating stations – and, he says, at the very least residents who’ve already gone solar shouldn’t be penalized under any new regime.

“I don’t think we want to be overly disruptive with any policy,” says Woodcock. “I think we want to see subsidies be reduced and we don’t want to have low-income customers bear the cost of more affluent demographic groups putting up solar.”

In principle, that’s pretty close to what public advocate Tim Schneider and others in the consensus group say. But so far they have not been able to agree on the devilish details – and with the legislative session nearing its conclusion, it’s at best uncertain whether a workable compromise will be found.

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.