September 19, 2017
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Maine is on a disastrous path — if it ever wants to benefit from solar energy

Peter Cowin | BDN
Peter Cowin | BDN
A Maine barn fitted with a 12kw solar power generation system.

After lawmakers last year failed to pass legislation to update the state’s rules around solar energy sales, the Maine Public Utilities Commission has adopted rules that are unworkable, will unnecessarily cost ratepayers millions of dollars, and do nothing to encourage needed development of solar energy resources in the state.

Lawmakers again have an opportunity to put Maine on a better course. But, unlike last year, enough of them must vote for what is best for all Mainers and not let themselves be bullied by Gov. Paul LePage.

With starkly different goals in mind, the governor, the public advocate and utility companies have all sought to end net metering in Maine in recent years. This was part of a national effort to end the practice of allowing people who generate solar power at their homes to sell the power they don’t use to the electrical grid. Net metering opponents argue that the setup is unfair to other utility customers because when these small solar power generators sell their power, they aren’t bearing the same fixed costs to maintain the power lines and other infrastructure needed to power the entire grid.

Last year, the House and Senate passed a comprehensive bill to develop a net metering alternative with the goal of spurring solar energy development in Maine, which lags all other New England states in this growing source of jobs and investment. LePage vetoed the bill. An attempt to override the veto failed when six Republican lawmakers skipped the vote on it.

So, instead of a thoughtful, bipartisan update to Maine’s solar policies, the PUC wrote a rule that makes no sense and will be hard to implement. The rule will go into effect in January if lawmakers fail to come up with a better plan.

The PUC rule will assess transmission and distribution fees on power generated by homeowners and others who generate solar power on their premises and sell the excess into the power grid.

To collect such a charge, utility companies will have to update their billing systems — which all ratepayers would have to pay as part of their electric bills.

The timing for this expensive new requirement couldn’t be worse for ratepayers of Central Maine Power Co. That utility is in the midst of a billing system update estimated to cost $55 million. But this new system would not accommodate the new transmission and delivery costs that are part of the new PUC rule. Ratepayers are already paying for this system upgrade, and they would also have to cover the additional costs related to the changes required by the PUC’s rules. Ratepayers would also pay for billing system upgrades for the state’s other utilities.

In addition, new meters would need to be installed at every solar-generating location that sells power to the grid. These meters would measure the power generated, while existing meters would measure the amount of power used at these locations, including homes. Each meter costs $500. The PUC rules does not take advantage of smart meters that have already been installed in Maine, at ratepayer expense.

What do Maine ratepayers get for this? Nothing. In fact, the state will likely move backward.

Republicans on the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee have written a compromise plan. Their amendment to LD 1504 would put the PUC rule on hold for further analysis into whether net metering actually harms other ratepayers — a review that should have been done before the state set out on a path to eliminate the practice. It would also raise the limit on the number of entities that can participate in solar farms, which would encourage more of them.

And, for those who continue to oppose net metering, it would be eliminated if the Legislature doesn’t develop an alternative.

This is a reasonable alternative to the PUC rule. Lawmakers should support it.

 


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