PORTLAND, MAINE >> Republican Gov. Paul LePage and powerful environmental lobbyists are among those weighing in on the future of a Maine policy that gives bill credits to solar system owners for the retail value of the excess energy they feed back into the grid.
LePage calls the nearly 30-year-old law a reverse Robin Hood program that lets those who can afford solar generators shift costs onto ordinary consumers. Solar and environmental advocates say he's downplaying a 2014 state study suggesting solar energy reduces everyone's electricity rates.
The state Public Utilities Commission is reviewing the net-metering policy because of a state law that's triggered when solar generation hits 1 percent of an electric utility's total load.
This year, Massachusetts cut reimbursement rates for commercial solar projects while New Hampshire and Vermont are letting solar customers sell more energy back to the grid. Vermont regulators are also making such customers pay a fee to the utility for providing the grid.
In Maine, LePage this year vetoed a widely supported compromise bill that would have let Central Maine Power buy solar users' energy under long-term contracts and then bid that energy on the New England electricity market.
LePage has criticized the reform for not capping the price of the contracts. His energy office wants the state Public Utilities Commission to get rid of net metering and compensate solar owners at a "real-time," market rate.
Solar and environmental groups want the commission to wait on any decisions until solar legislation is introduced in January, and they say the review is creating uncertainty and dissuading people from investing in solar.
Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said he's "not optimistic" that PUC commissioners — all appointed by LePage — will adopt rules that encourage solar power.
Central Maine Power suggests that the commission could consider a framework like the one LePage vetoed, and the state's public advocate, Timothy Schneider, says the commission has the authority to make several of the framework's changes.
Schneider noted that few businesses are participating in net metering and said current rules benefit homeowners while excluding renters.
Portland Democratic Mayor Ethan Strimling says the commission shouldn't wait for legislators. He wants commissioners to "move swiftly" to either continue or improve current net-metering rules.
"Many cities have suspended their plans for installing solar on landfills or municipal buildings, and Portland faces a tough decision on whether to follow suit," Strimling wrote in comments to the commission, noting a proposed 660-kilowatt solar facility in Portland.