June 23, 2018
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Lawmakers have one more chance to fix nonsensical solar rules

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Solar panels are installed on a home in Orono in August.

Maine lawmakers again have the chance to fix unnecessary rules that will hamper the development of solar and other alternative, clean energy in Maine and will also needlessly cost Mainers millions of dollars.

In 2016, the Legislature passed a bipartisan bill to update the state’s rules around solar power generation. LePage vetoed that legislation. When it came time for the override vote, many House Republicans reversed their earlier support for the legislation and voted to uphold LePage’s veto. Six lawmakers literally took a walk and did not vote on it, allowing LePage’s veto to stand.

As a result, bipartisan compromise legislation that would have modernized Maine’s rules for solar power generation fell by the wayside. Instead, the PUC wrote rules that are unworkable, are costly to ratepayers and won’t spur a needed increase in solar-generated energy.

The PUC rules, which were supposed to go into effect this month but have been delayed by the commission until May, direct utilities to assess transmission and distribution fees on power generated by homeowners and others who generate electricity on their premises and sell the excess into the power grid. The fee will be charged on power that never leaves the home or business where it is generated, a huge windfall to electric utilities.

To collect such a charge, utility companies will have to update their billing systems and install new meters — which all ratepayers would have to pay for 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 also would 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 already have been installed in Maine, at ratepayer expense.

Late in last year’s legislative session, lawmakers came close to fixing this ludicrous situation by overwhelmingly passing a bill that would have given the PUC until 2019 to come up with better rules for compensating residents and businesses that generate more solar energy than they need and sell it to the electricity grid, without requiring two meters. LePage vetoed the bill and, after heavy lobbying from CMP, several lawmakers who had voted in favor of the bill voted to sustain the veto.

In his veto message, LePage repeated untrue accusations that net metering, the current system of compensating small power generators, “subsidizes the cost of solar panels at the expense of the elderly and poor.” In fact, the PUC found that all ratepayers are benefiting from the solar energy contributed to the grid by net metering customers.

Lawmakers have one more chance to fix this before the PUC begins assessing the new costs on Maine electricity customers by passing LD 1686. The bill would give the PUC until 2020 to analyze the benefits and drawbacks of net metering and report on how best to transition to a new system of billing for customers who generate power and sell it to the grid.

This is a much more prudent approach than raising costs for all Maine utilities customers because the governor objects to alternative energy.

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