Legislators support changes to Maine’s solar energy policy

Jordan Smith
By Jordan Smith

Advocates for solar power appear on the verge of securing an important victory in Maine, where lawmakers have voted to overturn regulations that increase costs for solar customers. Legislators backed a bill March 14 to return the state’s solar customers to a net metering system, abolishing the policy known as gross metering that was introduced by the previous administration under Governor Paul LePage.

In a March 2017 decision, the Public Utilities Commission of Maine overturned the preexisting net metering system, which allowed customers with solar panels installed on their building to use the power generated free of charge. Net metering also permitted customers to transfer unused power to the grid and obtain power from the grid at a reduced price when their panels failed to generate enough power for their needs.

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The system was replaced by gross metering, which forced customers to pay for all energy generated from their solar panels, including the energy they use themselves. According to critics, implementing this policy required thousands of new meters installations costing millions of dollars across the state to measure the energy produced by rooftop solar panels. The associated costs were transferred to ratepayers, who also experienced a 10 percent cut in metering credits in the project’s first year.

“The utility is “metering and taking ownership of the electrons we generate and use immediately, which is like the supermarket making us weigh the vegetables we grow in our gardens and charging us for them. Who would agree to that?” asks Toby Williamson, a building owner who estimates the introduction of gross metering cost him between $500 and $1,000 annually. Williamson also had to pay $1,500 up front to have a second meter installed on his building to measure the energy produced by his solar panels. He says he is still waiting on that sum to be reimbursed by his utility.

Why was gross metering introduced?

In adopting gross metering, the PUC argued that net metering was unfair because it shifted the financial burden away from customers with distributed energy installations to those who had none. This thinking was supported by Governor LePage, who vetoed a bill passed last year by state legislators who wanted to overturn the gross metering policy.

One of the chief problems was that regulators vastly underestimated the cost of installing the meters on buildings with solar panels. While the PUC assumed this would cost around $500 per meter, estimates suggest that installations averaged at $1,800 per customer. Some sources reported that the cost for commercial customers was as high as $3,300. Furthermore, the returns for utilities from gross metering are comparatively small, calling into question the very purpose of the legislation.

Regulators already partially acknowledged the problem, agreeing in December 2018 to abandon gross metering for large commercial operations.

But opponents insisted that the repeal of gross metering for commercial customers was only a first step. “This is the beginning of the end for a failed policy that has thwarted Maine’s renewable energy sector, penalized Maine people and businesses that want to invest in energy independence, and needlessly burdened all ratepayers,” Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, commented last December. “While we are disappointed that the PUC did not also drop gross metering for Maine homes and small businesses, the evidence is in that this policy has got to go before more damage is done.”

New legislation

A soon as Democratic Governor Janet Mills signs the bill into law – an outcome which is considered all but certain – ratepayers will hopefully see a change in their bills. Mills won the governor’s election last fall with promises that included a new approach to clean energy. In an executive order in February, she lifted a wind power moratorium in the state.

However, more work remains to be done. Vaughan Woodruff, president of solar panel installer Insource Renewables, argues that the repealing of gross metering can only be a temporary measure until lawmakers work out a revised solar policy. The policy will seek to make investment in solar power easier and remove barriers to solar energy access for customers.

“Hanging out with folks in California, they’re like on graduate level solar policy. It feels like at times we’re still in the sandbox eating crayons. And so I feel like this will give us the opportunity to really sit down and be thoughtful,” explains Woodruff.

State Rep. Seth Berry, who sponsored the bill to reintroduce net metering, agrees that fundamental changes are required to the state’s power grid and utility model. “The days of the one monolithic utility that delivered power in one direction from far distance centralized generation sources is a dinosaur,” says Berry.

Jordan Smith is a freelance journalist and translator covering issues related to energy, the environment, and politics. His work has appeared on the independent news site Opposing Views, and at the Canadian Labour Institute.