September 19, 2017
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The two choices Maine lawmakers face on solar power

By Darren Fishell, BDN Staff
Updated:
Christopher Cousins | BDN
Christopher Cousins | BDN
Gov. Paul LePage

The corner Maine lawmakers backed themselves into on solar policy has two exits.

One does nothing, leaving in place a temporary system regulators created. The plan upset solar friends and foes alike. Utility Central Maine Power Co. prefers it, though, to the other option.

The other option is to override a veto from Gov. Paul LePage and enact LD 1504, tweaking the policy regulators created and directing them back to the drawing board.

Both of those options would gradually draw down incentives for solar power and neither of them is intended as a long-term solution to fairly compensating small-scale solar generators for the power they put onto the grid.

But the outcome of Wednesday’s veto override vote will determine how those generators get paid for new solar installations starting in 2018, which is an important detail for anyone considering to buy.

It’s also relevant to utilities. While power generation is none of their business in New England, power consumption remains at least a part of it.

By the end of 2016, Maine’s two major utilities had 2,805 customers with net metered solar installations

Lawmakers passed the bill to tweak those rules with enough support to override a veto, but it’s unclear how the repeat of that vote will play out.

That leaves two avenues still rife with complexities and unanswered questions. Here’s a rundown of those options, however lawmakers decide.

In case of veto, see PUC rule

Upholding LePage’s veto would put Maine on track to enact the Maine Public Utilities Commission’s 10-page rule that would gradually reduce the solar power incentive program called “net metering.”

That allows customers with small generation systems — mostly solar — to get credits when they generate more power than they consume, putting electricity back onto the grid.

Currently, they get paid the full retail rate, which means the cost for the electricity itself and the portion of charges for using the poles and wires to transmit that power. The PUC rule would step down how much solar customers get paid for the transmission part, based on the year they install their system.

To handle that, the rule allows utilities to install a second meter to measure the output of solar power systems. Under the rule, the utility could not recover those costs directly from that customer, putting the cost of those installations onto its general pool of ratepayers.

But the PUC rules have a shelf life. When solar capacity hits 3 percent of peak demand in any utility’s service territory, regulators will take another look at the policy. That’s similar to the review that brought on the new rules in the first place, which required notification when that figure hit 1 percent of peak demand.

CMP notified regulators that they hit that benchmark in late 2015. Maine’s previous public advocate wrote that review could happen as early as 2018.

What happens with an override

The new rule would draw down solar incentives for two years, leaving it up to regulators whether to keep that up in subsequent years. That seems likely as the policy those regulators crafted would do just that.

The bill prevents a utility from requiring a separate meter to attach to solar generation facilities in order to participate in net metering, seeking to avoid that cost while regulators figure out other options.

That directive is another key difference. While the next review under the PUC policy comes at the 3-percent threshold, the bill requires the PUC to conclude its study of how to transition away from net metering by Dec. 31, 2018, giving a report to lawmakers by Jan. 1, 2019.

In a change hailed by solar advocates, the policy raises the number of customers who can share ownership in net metered solar generation facilities, referred to as “community solar.” The bill raises the current cap from 10 customers to a cap of 100 customers.

 


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