November 14, 2016 | last updated November 14, 2016 8:00 am
Politics & Co.

No easy answers as PUC weighs change in ‘net metering’ rules

Maine Public Utilities Commission Chairman Mark Vannoy and fellow Commissioners Carlisle McLean and Bruce Williamson have their work cut out for them as they wade through reams of spoken and written testimony received since the Oct. 17 public hearing on a proposed rule to gradually phase out financial incentives designed to encourage consumers to install solar panels on their homes or small businesses.

The filing period for testimony closed Nov. 2. It's not certain how soon the PUC will decide whether to proceed with a final rule or defer to the new Legislature the question of whether net energy billing (often referred to as "net metering") has served its purpose in jump-starting Maine's solar industry and, if so, should it be replaced with some other payment structure for electricity generated by rooftop solar owners.

Here's a small sampling of comments gleaned from documents posted on the PUC's website, which highlight the complexity and high stakes of the pending net metering decision:

John Egan, head of lending at CEI: "We've made over $3 million in solar loans in just the past couple of years. We lend these small businesses money and they spend it in the local economy, and that's how policy drives economic development. And I can say firsthand that when the announcement for this hearing and this discussion came up, it was an absolute chill, if not wet blanket, on our customers talking to their customers about how to do more solar in Maine under the uncertainty of the regulatory climate. … The PUC should defer the discussion on net metering to the Maine Legislature where constituents can participate and discuss this issue with their elected representatives."

Fortunat Mueller, co-founder of ReVision Energy, largest Maine-based solar company: "The commission appropriately recognized that holding existing customers harmless from any proposed changes is a critical part of any rule change. But 15 years [as the 'grandfather' period for continuing net metering for current solar panel owners], frankly, is way too short. It is far and away the shortest of any proposal across the country and makes Maine the most unfriendly solar state in the nation at this point."

Ashley Brown, executive director of the Harvard Electricity Policy Group, a program of the Kennedy School at Harvard University, and former Ohio PUC member: "The commission deserves commendation for joining with many other commissions across the United States in taking up reform of a pricing regime that is not only outdated, but imposes unfair burdens on many consumers, particularly those at the low end of the income spectrum, distorts efficient price signals, supports inflated prices for rooftop solar, and is harmful to the long-term sustainability of solar energy. Although the proposed reform is more incremental than ideal, it still represents a significant step forward in redressing the effects of [net energy billing]."

Richard P. Hevey, attorney for Central Maine Power: "If Maine is to be successful in implementing a sustainable policy of developing renewable distributed energy resources, it needs a new alternative to net energy billing that fairly compensates [distributed energy generators] for their deliveries to the network but also equitably allocates the costs of the transmission and distribution grid to all customers, including customers who chose to install self-generation systems."

Patrick Woodcock, director, Maine Governor's Energy Office: "Net energy billing policy is currently being debated across the United States with vocal advocates urging regulators to maintain or expand eligibility. Maine is no exception. However, there are more than 765,000 electric utility customers in Maine who are not net energy billing customers, who stand to be harmed by the continuation of this outdated policy. Many of these are low- or fixed-income customers and struggling businesses."

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