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Battle Over Maine Solar Energy Policies Continues

Advocates for expanding solar power’s footprint in Maine turned out in force Monday to call on regulators to preserve policies they say have fostered the industry’s growth. They’re also requesting that any changes be left to the next Legislature.

Earlier this year, the state’s Public Utilities Commission proposed reforms to a system that’s allowed solar power producers to receive electricity bill credits when they put excess energy on the power grid. It’s called “net metering” and the excess energy credits have helped solar users by providing a revenue stream that can help offset the big upfront cost of a solar installation.

Critics, including Gov. Paul LePage, say net metering gives solar users an unfair subsidy paid for by the rest of the state’s electricity consumers. And this year LePage vetoed a compromise measure approved by the Legislature with support from consumer representatives, solar power users and the state’s utilities. Solar installers and financing enterprises say since then uncertainty has put a crimp on the industry.

Now the Public Utilities Commission is proposing to phase out net metering credits on similar grounds. And Fortunat Mueller, co-owner of Portland solar installer ReVision Energy, says that’s a mistake. Mueller was among those testifying at a public hearing on the plan.

“The Commission moved forward on the obviously flawed premise that some sort of back-of-the-napkin calculation of lost utility revenue is equal to cost shift,” Mueller said. “That’s obviously not true, everyone in this room understands that’s not true and building a draft rule on that basis is just intellectually lazy.”

Many had similar comments, with one environmental group, the Conservation Law Foundation, testifying that the commission has badly misread the law and does not have authority to phase out net metering. But others applauded the effort.

Barbara Alexander of Winthrop is a former director of the commission’s consumer assistance division. She says she has no problem with solar producers being paid for electricity they put on the grid. But she says they should not be exempted from paying the cost of maintaining the system’s poles and wires, and their administration.

“The bottom line is that the solar industry has benefited from significant subsidies,” says Alexander. “That is a direct penny-for-penny subsidy from the rest of us to the solar customers, To the extent that is helping the solar business stay in business in this state, I’m sorry. If you want to get supported with subsidies like that, go to the legislature and get tax relief.”

With the next legislative session less than four months away, solar advocates are urging the regulatory commission to hold off on its rule-making, because there is sure to be a renewed attempt at finding another compromise that keeps the industry growing without placing what some see as an undue burden on other electricity users.

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.