The LePage administration is urging the Public Utilities Commission to eliminate net energy billing (NEB), a program that allows people with rooftop solar arrays to receive credits for the energy they send to the grid that they can use to purchase power from the grid when the sun isn’t shining. In comments filed with the PUC on July 22, the Governor’s Energy Office (GEO) expressed concern that if NEB capacity continues to grow, it will shift costs to non-NEB customers.

“The GEO, therefore, recommends that NEB be discontinued as soon as possible and be replaced with an interim approach that moves toward a market-based system,” wrote the GEO, “but in a measured way that allows customers and the industry time to adapt to a market-based approach while reducing the amount of subsidy paid by non-NEB customers.”

The GEO recommended that existing NEB customers who install solar before September 1, 2016, should be “grandfathered for no more than three years” while new solar energy users would be compensated at a lower rate of return for the power they produce. However, solar advocates point to a 2015 Maine PUC-commissioned study that determined the value of solar power produced in Maine to be twice the standard retail rate per kilowatt-hour 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.

In a statement, Rep. Sara Gideon (D-Freeport) called the governor’s plan “reckless” and “ill-conceived.” 

Last year, Gideon led a stakeholder group of utilities, solar producers and environmental groups that came up with a bipartisan alternative to NEB, which supporters say would have increased solar capacity, created 650 new solar jobs and saved electric customers between $58 million and $110 million. The measure would have also grandfathered customers for 12 years, allowing customers to stay with traditional net metering or to change to the new method. However, the governor and House Republicans successfully defeated the initiative last spring, arguing that it would increase electricity costs. 

“We had an opportunity this session to do that while creating jobs, reducing costs, mitigating climate change and putting solar power within reach for more Maine families and businesses,” said Gideon. “The governor opposed that bipartisan effort and now would squash Maine’s homegrown solar businesses with his plan. We need lawmakers to stand up to his misguided opposition to solar and support good policy.”

The PUC, all LePage-appointed members, is expected to draft new net energy billing rules by the end of the year.

 


“Picking Winners & Losers?”

In the meantime, solar installer Vaughan Woodruff, the owner of Pittsfield-based Insource Renewables, says his company, which took in about $1.2 million in revenues in 2015, has seen roughly $400,000 to $500,000 worth of projects put on hold due to the uncertainty presented by the PUC review. He pointed out on Facebook that the PUC is also considering a proposal, passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor, which could provide $13.4 million in taxpayer-funded subsidies to at least two failing woody biomass incinerators in order to, at least temporarily, save 400 logging jobs and 900 indirect jobs. 

The four remaining biomass plants are owned by ReEnergy Holdings LLC, a company owned by a New York-based $33 billion private equity firm, Riverstone Energy Holdings. According to finance reports, following the Legislature’s passage of the biomass bailout ReEnergy contributed $3,250 to Democrats and $500 to Republicans. Since 2011, the company has donated $12,750 to Democratic and Republican campaigns. It spent $27,000 on lobbying various bills in 2016, including the biomass bailout bill.

The PUC has also recently approved a measure to potentially charge electric customers up to $1.5 billion to subsidize the expansion of private natural gas pipelines into the state, despite concerns from its own staff that the move is too risky. According to finance reports, in 2013 natural gas interests spent over $35,000 lobbying the pipeline subsidy bill, among others. And while local renewable energy industry groups spent $1,740 lobbying in support of Gideon’s solar compromise Solar City and Sun Run, two large out-of-state solar companies that don’t do any business in Maine, collectively spent over $12,000 to kill it. Sun Run also donated $5,500 to support the Republican lawmakers who defeated the bill and $750 to Democratic PACs.

“One needn’t argue the merits and costs of each of these bills to recognize some significant inconsistencies,” wrote Woodruff of the biomass bailout and the gas pipeline subsidy. “One of the indirect benefits of the vetoed solar bill — namely the sales tax revenues from the level of investment laid out in the legislation — would have paid for the entire biomass investment. Spending ratepayer funds on natural gas sounds an awful lot like the ‘picking winners and losers’ approach that Governor LePage claims to abhor. The traditional values of Mainers include integrity. Hypocrisy is as undesirable a trait as laziness where I come from.”