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Maine regulators warn community solar expansion could drive up electricity bills

Solar panels stretch across 38 acres at the BNRG/Dirigo solar farm, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, in Oxford, Maine. President Joe Biden wants to change the way the U.S. uses energy by expanding renewables, but faces several challenges.
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP
Solar panels stretch across 38 acres at the BNRG/Dirigo solar farm, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, in Oxford, Maine. President Joe Biden wants to change the way the U.S. uses energy by expanding renewables, but faces several challenges.

Maine energy regulators are warning that spikes in electricity bills coming this winter could be exacerbated in future years by the rapid expansion of so-called "community solar" programs in Maine.

The Legislature recently increased the size of projects that could access the state's "net energy billing" system, which provides credits and payments for electricity that solar generators put on the grid. Patrick Scully, a member of the Public Utilities Commission, told a legislative committee on Wednesday that the credits add costs to everyone's electricity bills.

"These costs are going up and the impact of these costs on Maine customers are particularly regressive in impacting lower-income customers more heavily than higher-income customers," he says.

He adds that the value of the credits rises when electricity prices rise — costing all ratepayers even more. He says it's a cycle that eventually could inhibit the push to "decarbonize" the economy.

"It starts to create at some level a disincentive for people to engage in beneficial electrification. I own an F-150. I would love to trade it in for one of the electric F-150s. But if rates keep going up, I'm not sure I'm going to do  it," he says.

Regulators say that at minimum the new solar programs will add $97 million annually to system costs, a number that could rise dramatically after 2022, depending in part on how many of the planned projects actually get built.

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.