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Legislature Sustains LePage’s Veto of Solar Power Bill

Jim Mone
Associated Press/file
Solar panels that are part of the Wright-Hennepin Cooperative Electric Association's community gardens in Rockford, Minn., in February of 2015.

The future of Maine’s residential solar power industry was thrown into doubt Wednesday after lawmakers upheld Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a measure that supporters say aimed to stabilize the sector.

The bill would have stalled a comparatively rapid phase-out of incentives small solar electricity generators get when they put excess energy back onto the power grid. It would also have called for an in-depth analysis of the costs and benefits of the so-called net metering program.

Until recently it looked as if the Legislature was poised to override LePage’s veto — the Senate easily passed the override on a bipartisan vote. But recent lobbying by net-metering opponents, including Central Maine Power, succeeded in peeling off enough support in the House to make sure that the veto held.

In floor debate, Republican Rep. Heather Sirocki of Scarborough quoted an op-ed by CMP CEO Sara Burns.

“Today the people who invest in private solar systems earn their return on investment by shifting millions of dollars in grid operating costs onto those who don’t or can’t make the same investment. That is simply not fair,” she said.

Burns’ analysis has come under fire from solar power advocates, who say it wildly inflates the true size of that purported cost shift, while failing to account for financial benefits analysts say distributed energy sources such as rooftop solar arrays can create by, for instance, averting the need for some costly transmission investments.

Advocates charge that CMP’s true motivation is to stop the build-out of energy sources that take homes “off the grid” because, simply, that means less profits for CMP.

Independent Rep. Ralph Chapman of Brooksville noted that the veto would continue uncertainty over how the residential solar power industry will be regulated in Maine.

“And the primary need that they have, and their customers and their clients, is some level of certainty as to what is going to happen. The uncertainty is more costly than a poor decision,” he said.

The veto override, which required a two-thirds majority, failed on a vote of 88-48.

In the absence of new law, the residential solar sector will now be governed under rules set by the Maine Public Utilities Commission, scheduled to go into effect in January. They would more quickly phase out net metering incentives, while creating a new regulatory scheme that LePage himself has condemned, which the state’s public advocate found would in the short term cost all electricity users more money than would sticking with the old system, and which environmentalists have already filed papers to challenge in the state Supreme Judicial Court.