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Solar Energy Compromise Heads to LePage With Enough Support to Withstand Veto

Gabor Degre
Bangor Daily News
Some of the solar panels installed on buildings at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association fairground in Unity.

Two-thirds of lawmakers in both the Maine Senate and House of Representatives on Wednesday approved a solar policy compromise designed to prevent the costly rollout of rules that would have required utilities to install two power meters at certain homes and businesses.

But the bill keeps some of those rules in place, including a controversial plan to decrease the credits given to homes and businesses with solar power installations.

The amended bill approved Wednesday addresses short-term issues around the policy called net metering, in which utility customers with power generation systems can receive credits for energy they send to the grid.

It leaves the longer-term planning to the Maine Public Utilities Commission. The bill directs the commission to come up with a report about how to transition away from net metering before lawmakers convene for the 130th Legislature, in 2019.

Until then, solar power generators will get paid less starting in 2018.

Currently, they earn credits for the full retail value of electricity during times when they generate more power than they consume. The price includes the cost of electricity and a price for using the poles and wires on which it’s delivered, or transmission and distribution costs.

The bill will reduce the credits small generators receive based on transmission and distribution costs, giving them credits for 90 percent of what utilities charge starting in 2018. That will drop to 80 percent in 2019. The bill leaves future decreases up to regulators.

But it also increases the number of customers who can take a shared interest in a generation facility, to 100. Current law caps participation in community solar farms at 10 customers.

The bill patches over a controversy stemming from rules the Maine Public Utilities Commission approved decades ago, as something of a pilot program to compensate distributed small-scale power generators.

The rules allowed utilities to request a review of the system when enough small-scale generators were installed at homes or businesses. The state hit that cap last year, prompting the regulatory review and decision to gradually cut back credits.

The bill now heading to Gov. Paul LePage directs regulators to assess the costs and benefits of net metering and the impact that its recommendations stand to have on construction of solar power facilities in Maine. It also requires input from the solar power industry, utilities, the Governor’s Energy Office, Office of the Public Advocate and others on the process.

The issue has simmered after lawmakers asked a similar group of stakeholders to come up with the plan that narrowly fell to LePage’s veto pen last year. The bill would have created a new scheme to compensate small-scale generators, which are mostly solar.

The level of Senate and House support for the final amended bill means lawmakers could override a veto from Gov. Paul LePage, if that support holds.

This story appears through a media-sharing agreement with Bangor Daily News.