2016-04-15 / Community

Legislature should adopt solar power policy

Guest Column
By Jim Gailey
South Portland city manager

A new and creative way to bring reduced electricity costs to all ratepayers and help municipalities invest in sustainable, low cost energy to benefit residents is currently before the Maine Legislature, L.D. 1649, An Act to Modernize Maine’s Solar Power Policy and Encourage Economic Development.

Unfortunately, the governor opposes the bill, and members of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee voted along party lines. This could leave Maine’s solar industry in a precarious place. There is a real danger that Maine’s solar energy industry could die on the vine if the current net metering program is ended, unless the alternative provided by L.D. 1649 prevails. That is because the Public Utilities Commission is poised to review “net-metering,” the mechanism that enables folks with solar panels to get credit for excess solar electricity they produce. There is much to like in L.D. 1649 for its own merits, but it is also important to recognize that inaction threatens to move Maine backwards when we are already in last place for solar in New England.

The solar bill is worth fighting for as it was developed by the state’s public advocate in a way that would ensure that solar electricity systems could be installed in Maine without benefitting some ratepayers over others, but instead would benefit all ratepayers. As a result of a market-based approach, the solar bill has the unprecedented support of Central Maine Power and Emera Maine as well as that of environmental groups and Maine’s solar installers. Several Maine municipalities also participated in the lengthy process to develop the bill and it has the strong support of the Maine Municipal Association.

Some lawmakers have raised concerns about the bill based on short-term and incomplete data. An example of this is by seizing on the costs of the bill while ignoring the benefits. The Public Advocate and Public Utilities Commission agree that the bill will almost immediately lower prices for ratepayers compared to the status quo. Over time the benefits will grow substantially as we capture the full value of distributed solar. Leading municipalities like South Portland, as well as commercial and industrial firms and homeowners and community solar advocates, want the Legislature to take a harder look at L.D. 1649. As it stands now, net metering simply does not work for these segments.

Unlike residential rooftop solar systems where net metering credits can be applied to kilowatt hours of electricity used, larger electricity users, like sewage treatment plants, grocery stores, large schools, and manufacturing plants pay most of their electricity charges based on their peak demand and not on total kilowatt hours used during a billing cycle – thus getting very little benefit from net metering.

In addition the current arbitrary cap on shared solar installations in Maine stops groups from cooperating on larger or community solar projects. L.D. 1649 lifts those limits and creates a usable way for the rest of the economy to participate in solar energy.

South Portland is deeply committed to renewable energy solutions, and we are seeking a way to meet some of our energy needs with solar. If, as a state, we want to have any chance of catching up with the solar job creation that other New England states are enjoying, and if we want to see solar panels on top of shopping centers and factories as well as homes, we all need to support L.D. 1649 and demand that the Legislature enact this balanced solar policy. The bill moves beyond a pattern of conflict over solar we have seen between utilities and solar users or advocates, creating a truly innovative way to increase solar of all kinds and capture its benefit for all ratepayers. It has won broad support from virtually every stakeholder and we hope it will gain broad bipartisan support from the Senate and House.

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