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October 18, 2016

PUC on the hot seat over proposed solar 'net metering' rules

File Photo / Laurie Schreiber A solar array atop the Village Center in Brewer. The 100-panel photovoltaic array is capable of generating 26 kilowatts of electricity.
File Photo / Peter van Allen Maine Beer Co.'s previously installed solar system at its brewery in Freeport.

Solar power advocates came out in force Monday to tell the Maine Public Utilities Commission that it should scrap its proposed rule to gradually phase out financial incentives designed to encourage consumers to install solar panels on their homes or small businesses.

At a public hearing in Augusta, solar advocates argued that rolling back current “net energy billing” policies, which the state implemented in the late 1980s to encourage its emerging solar industry, would keep Maine in last place among the Northeast states at a time when solar energy installations and jobs are growing nationwide.

Under net energy billing (often referred to as “net metering”), the solar customer's electric meter keeps track of how much electricity is consumed by that household or business and how much excess electricity is generated by solar panels and sent back into the electric utility grid. Over a 12-month period, aside from a small monthly service fee charged by their utility, the customer pays only for the net amount of electricity used from the utility that’s over-and-above the amount of electricity generated by their solar power system.

In mid-September, the three-member PUC, all appointees of Gov. Paul LePage, proposed a rule that would grandfather for 15 years net metering credits for existing solar owners. As new customers sign up over the next 10 years, the PUC also stated in its proposed rule, “netting of the transmission and distribution portion of the bill will be gradually reduced” while “netting regarding the supply portion of the customer’s bill will remain unchanged.”

The PUC’s proposal also calls for a 50% increase in the size cap for eligible solar-powered facilities — from 660 kilowatts to 1,000 kilowatts — and explicitly allows net energy billing for community solar projects.

“In light of changes in the technology and costs of small renewable generation, particularly solar photovoltaic, we felt that opening a rulemaking process to consider changes to the [current] rule was the prudent course of action to ensure that all ratepayers are treated fairly,” PUC Chairman Mark Vannoy said when the rule was proposed.

Advocates: Legislature, not PUC, should decide

In written testimony filed with the PUC, the Natural Resources Council of Maine said the state’s solar policies would be better addressed by the Legislature and encouraged commissioners to set aside their proposed rule.

NRCM was among numerous stakeholders involved in crafting a compromise solar policy that was approved by the Legislature earlier this year but vetoed by Gov. LePage. Those advocates plan to pursue a similar course when the new Legislature convenes in January.

“By changing net metering rules in a major way right as the next legislative session is beginning, the commission is impeding the Legislature’s ongoing effort to adopt a comprehensive distributed solar policy,” Dylan Voorhees, NRCM’s clean energy director, wrote.

Stephen Hinchman, attorney for the Portland-based solar company ReVision Energy LLC, criticized the PUC for arriving at its rule without following the usual process of seeking input from all stakeholders in a regulatory procedure involving “discovery, cross-examination … [and] the filing of legal briefs.”

Ashley Brown, executive director of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Harvard Electricity Policy Group, testified in support of Central Maine Power’s position that net metering has done its job.

In an interview with Mainebiz prior to heading up to the Augusta hearing, Brown characterized “net metering” as a “relic of yesteryear.”

“The question to start off with for the Maine PUC, or any commission for that matter, is: As the cost of solar power declines, why in the world would we keep a system in place that requires customers to pay retail prices for what is essentially a wholesale product?” Brown said.

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