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After intense debate and lobbying, lawmakers approve tweaks to solar subsidies

Dave Kolpack
Associated Press/via Bangor Daily News

State lawmakers have approved changes to a solar energy subsidy program that is increasing electricity prices for ratepayers.

The "net energy billing" program turned out to be the most contentious and heavily lobbied energy issue of the 2023 legislative session. The four-year-old program aims to encourage solar development by allowing homeowners and larger-scale solar developers to claim credits or offsets for the energy they produce.

But those costs are borne by all ratepayers. And last month, Maine's Public Utilities Commission approved $135 million in rate hikes tied, in part, to the program because utilities like Central Maine Power and Versant are reimbursed for those offsets.

Lawmakers considered two competing measures to rein in future costs. One bill, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Mark Lawrence of Eliot who co-chairs the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, had the backing of many solar developers and environmental groups. The alternative bill, sponsored by Republican committee member Rep. Steven Foster of Dexter, had the support of Maine Public Advocate, Bill Harwood, as well as larger energy users and advocacy groups such as AARP Maine.

And after weeks of debate and intense lobbying, lawmakers approved Lawrence's bill, LD 1986, that requires the PUC to change the formula for net energy billing. The bill also also directs the state to tap into federal funds to incentivize solar development.

Some supporters of Foster's bill, including Democratic Rep. Sophia Warren of Scarborough, said LD 1986 doesn't do enough to tamp down on rising costs. But Warren ultimately voted for the measure as an interim step forward.

"My hope in this vote now is an attempt to say that I want to keep working, that I want to find some solution now and continue that dialogue and continue to seek compromise -- hopefully in a bipartisan manner -- in future legislation," Warren said on the House floor on Thursday.

Maine's Public Advocate was warned that the current net energy billing program, if left unchanged, could cost ratepayers $220 million a year. Solar developers and environmentalists have disputed that estimate, however. And supporters of both bills point out that the primary reason why Mainers' electricity bills have risen dramatically in recent years is not because of net energy billing but because rates are tied to the price of natural gas.