PUC Commssioners (from left to right) Dr. R. Bruce Williamson, Chairman Mark Vannoy and Carlisle McLean.
PUC Commssioners (from left to right) Dr. R. Bruce Williamson, Chairman Mark Vannoy and Carlisle McLean.
Maine Public Utilities Commission is proposing to phase out favorable rates for new solar users after 10 years and gradually get rid of benefits for existing rooftop solar producers after 15 years. 

The proposed rule change, announced at PUC’s meeting on Tuesday, addresses the program known as net energy billing (NEB), which allows homeowners and businesses with grid-tied solar arrays to receive credits for the excess energy they send to the grid and then redeem them to purchase additional power from the grid for up to a year. Currently, solar producers receive the full retail price for their power, which helps them recover the costs of the PV panels. But the new rates would gradually reduce those rates. 

The PUC’s decision came in response to a request from Central Maine Power after the utility’s cumulative capacity of solar generators had hit about 1 percent of its annual peak demand. NEB rules require the PUC to review the policy when NEB customers hit the 1-percent threshold. CMP has expressed concerns that the increase in solar use is forcing other electricity customers to shoulder electrical transmission and distribution costs because solar users still have to buy electricity and use the power lines when the sun isn’t shining. Last winter, CMP, the utility Emera Maine, virtually all of the Maine solar industry installers, environmental groups and the Public Advocate reached a consensus on a new solar policy proposal that they argued would have increased solar generation, created 650 new solar jobs and saved electric customers between $58 million and $110 million. However, LePage and House Republicans blocked the compromise because they are ideologically opposed to providing incentives for renewable energy. 

With the failure of the stakeholder bill, the PUC, all LePage appointees, was left with the power to unilaterally revise NEB policy.

“The Commission received many comments over the last several months regarding this topic,” wrote Commission Chairman Mark Vannoy in a statement. “In light of changes in the technology and costs of small renewable generation, particularly solar PV, we felt that opening a rulemaking process to consider changes to the rule was the prudent course of action to ensure that all ratepayers are treated fairly.”

Solar Advocates Respond 

Solar installers expressed relief that the PUC didn’t go with the LePage administration’s recommendation, which was to eliminate NEB entirely for new users two weeks ago and grandfather existing solar NEB customers  “for no more than three years.” However, they were disappointed that state regulators are further weakening what’s left of the state’s solar incentives and ignoring a 2015 PUC study that found that the value of solar power produced in Maine is worth twice the rate solar producers receive. The study determined that solar is much more valuable than other forms of energy because it displaces more expensive fuel sources, creates less air and climate pollution, adds more price stability and energy security to the state’s energy portfolio, and reduces the need to build more power plants to meet certain peak electricity demand times. 

“All available data, including the Commission’s own Value of Solar study, indicate that solar provides value for all Maine ratepayers in excess of its costs,” wrote Fortunat Mueller, co-founder of ReVision Energy, in a statement. “Why would we look to reduce the benefit received by solar customers at this point?”

Mueller pointed out that although Maine receives more sun than most of the rest of the Northeast, it still lags behind other New England states in the number of solar installations and solar jobs. Chuck Piper of Sundog Solar in Searsport pointed out that that lag is because Maine doesn’t have the incentives that have driven the growth of solar in other states. 

“The solar industry is one of the new vibrant and growing industries in the United States,” wrote Piper. “While Vermont currently employs over 1,200 people in the industry, Maine employs just over 300 people. Because of the lack of support we have seen coming out of Augusta, we have not been able to offer as many great paying jobs to Mainers as we would like.”

The PUC will continue to accept public comments on the proposal throughout the fall and will likely issue a final ruling by the end of the year. However, solar advocates are still hoping that the new Legislature will override the governor and pass a comprehensive solar policy for the state when it convenes in January.