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Business and Economy

PUC Delays Plan To Phase Out Solar Power Incentive

Kevin T. Houle
Flickr/Creative Commons

State regulators are delaying a much-anticipated and hotly contested decision on the future of solar power in Maine.

At issue is a program that allows residents and small businesses with solar installations to get paid retail rates for excess electricity that they supply to the regional grid. Net metering, as it’s called, has been a way for solar users to recoup the big, upfront cost of the investment.

Critics, including Gov. Paul LePage, say those costs are coming way down, and the program benefits wealthy do-gooders at the expense of all electricity users.

The three-member Public Utilities Commission proposed changes this summer that would have phased out the net metering program. They proposed alternatives that aimed to support further solar development, but which also drew criticism from many sides.

Commission spokesman Harry Lanphear says instead of taking final action this month, the panel will continue its review into the new year.

“It could be January, it could be February or March. I can’t say definitively,” he says. “We’re still doing our work and we’re still evaluating all the comments.”

A variety of stakeholders, from solar power advocates to utilities, had put together a consensus reform plan that passed the Legislature earlier this year, but was then vetoed by LePage. A new attempt is expected in the coming legislative session, but the regulators’ delay of their own plan for reform introduces new uncertainties into the process.

“It’s really disappointing that this rulemaking process, which we opposed getting started in the first place, has now dragged out and is going to overlap to some degree with the legislative session,” says Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Solar power businesses have complained for months that potential customers in Maine have put their plans on hold until they can get a better sense of what kind of payback for the investment will be possible in Maine.

Other New England states, meanwhile, have adopted solar power policies that have put them far ahead of Maine in the growth of the nonpolluting energy source.