AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage said Friday he would urge the three-member Maine Public Utilities Commission “to resign in a heartbeat,” saying their “absolutely horrendous” January decision on solar policy will hurt most of the state’s electricity ratepayers.
The Republican governor called a rare news conference in Augusta to expand on remarks made during Tuesday’s State of the State speech, when he said that he’d fire the three utility commissioners — whom LePage appointed — if he had the authority.
The conflict arises from a commission decision that rolled back “net metering” — a policy in effect since the 1980s in Maine that allows homeowners with solar panels to be credited by utilities, including Central Maine Power, for excess power sent to the grid.
For opposite reasons, LePage and environmentalists were angered by the decision, which will allow existing net-metered customers and those signing up before 2018 to be grandfathered at current rates for 15 years, but give reduced credits to those who enter the program through 2042.
Tim Schneider, Maine’s public advocate who led a group of utilities, solar companies and others that developed last year’s failed solar bill, said he was disappointed that LePage did not discuss a fix for the state’s net-metering policy.
“I think that there is a constructive role that the governor’s office could play in trying to fix this rule, which nobody likes,” he said, “and I think what was disappointing coming out of the briefing today is that they aren’t planning on engaging to try and fix the problem.”
Patrick Woodcock, former head of the Governor’s Energy Office, resigned in December, and LePage said Friday that he has no intention of filling the role.
On Friday, LePage reiterated his frustration with the commission, saying his only demand is to “lower the cost” of energy and “do no harm to the environment.” LePage can’t fire commissioners, but the term of one, former LePage chief lawyer Carlisle McLean, expires in March.
“The people who generate the solar power on their roof pay for the generation, but CMP is still going to bill you,” he said.
PUC spokesman Harry Lanphear declined comment and commissioners didn’t respond to requests for reaction. LePage also said Friday that he’d like to increase the commission from three to five members to add greater business experience to the panel.
During his six-year tenure, LePage has hammered state policy that he says picks “winners and losers” through subsidies, which has led to confrontations with environmentalists and clean energy industries.
That tension over short-term and long-term costs has defined energy debates during his tenure. On Friday, he noted that Maine has the nation’s 11th-highest energy costs and handed out packets of letters from businesses dating back to 2014 mentioning it as an obstacle.
Solar advocates have argued that net metering helps sustain a small industry with growth potential. A 2015 report from Environment Maine found that Maine had the second-to-lowest capacity in New England, and The Solar Foundation pegged Maine’s total of 330 jobs in the industry as last in the region.
Vaughan Woodruff, owner of the Pittsfield-based solar installer Insource Renewables, said Friday that it’s extreme for LePage’s attack on the PUC ruling, a decision he said includes “some of the most anti-solar stances in the entire country.”
“The governor continues to use his office as a bully pulpit to push an anti-solar ideology,” Woodruff said. “Fact after fact keeps coming out about solar’s benefits and its costs, and nothing means anything to his office.”
BDN writer Christopher Cousins contributed to this report.