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State Regulators Postpone Reduction In Solar Incentives

State regulators have granted a temporary reprieve for installers of small solar generation projects in Maine. It’s the latest shoe-drop in the ongoing controversy over the way those small-scale generators are compensated for excess electricity they provide.

For decades, Maine has offered solar projects credits for electricity they generate beyond what is used on-site. Early this year, the state Public Utilities Commission created a new rule that would reduce the value of those credits over time.

Existing arrays would be grandfathered, but the ramp-down for new systems was set to begin New Year’s Day. But that’s now delayed until April 30, as the commission has decided to give installers and utilities more time to iron out technical protocols, new fee structures and new billing systems.

The delay is a relief for installers like Vaughn Woodruff of Insource Renewables, who says his company and others in Maine have seen a rush of customers trying to get in under the wire to lock in the highest possible incentives.

“There are customers right now that have systems that are installed and ready to go, and due to delays with the utilities around the [October windstorm], the utility’s not ready for them to be hooked up. And so for those customers it provides them some breathing room,” he says.

Data provided by Central Maine Power show that requests for new solar hookups this year are running 35 percent higher than last, driven by a big surge in the last quarter that has brought the total to more than 800.

In a written statement, a CMP spokeswoman said the company appreciates the ruling and the chance to work through the “complexities” of the new system. Some solar power advocates, meanwhile, say those complexities are emblematic of a poorly conceived rule.

“I think the closer you get to an impending train wreck, the more likely it is you’ll step on the brakes,” says Brunswick Rep. Seth Berry, a Democrat who co-chairs the Legislature’s Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology.

Berry has been a leading defender of solar power incentives, and a critic of what he sees as attempts by utilities to squelch any innovations that might cut into their profits. While Gov. Paul LePage has vetoed recent efforts to encourage solar development, Berry says delay of the PUC’s new rule will give the Legislature another shot.

“Do we want to do something more like other states have done, and not become an anti-solar, anti-customer pariah?” he says.

And even before the Legislature acts, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court is likely to weigh in. An unusual coalition of solar advocates and large energy users, such as paper mills, is challenging the PUC’s solar rule, saying it puts illegal burdens on the production of energy that’s used only on-site.

“The takeaway is that the PUC is realizing that this kind of Frankenstein that they’ve created is a lot more difficult to implement than they would have thought, and raises a whole host of policy and fairness issues, never mind technical issues,” says Sean Mahoney, executive vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation. “But I don’t think the decision today has changed the PUC’s opinion with respect to the merits of the underlying rule, and that’s a matter that’s going to have to be resolved by the law court.”

And as the policy debate continues, Woodruff says he and other developers just want to get off what’s now known as “the solar-coaster” and onto firmer ground.

“Something that’s predictable and lasting so that we can invest money in Maine’s economy, that customers as they are looking at investing in energy infrastructure of the future have some predictability to do so, and that we’re looking at a long-term solution that solves a lot of questions that folks from both sides have brought up,” he says.

Calls to LePage's Office of Energy Independence were not returned by airtime.

The Supreme Judicial Court hears oral arguments on Maine’s residential solar power rules next Wednesday.

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.