An overflow crowd turned out for a legislative committee hearing Thursday as supporters and opponents of incentives for solar power development in Maine squared off.
Earlier this year state regulators adopted a new version of solar power rules that would gradually reduce existing incentives for the installation of residential solar arrays in Maine. That will go into effect next year, unless the Legislature acts first.
And there are several bills in the mix that could supersede the Public Utilities Commission’s plan, including one sponsored by Bowdoinham Democrat Seth Berry that would re-establish the existing incentives and even add in an extra consumer-financed rebate to help defray the upfront cost of installing a solar array.
“It restores and protects net metering, a policy we have had for decades in this state and which has proven to work, and which I consider to be a fair and just, although approximate, compensation for the benefits of distributed generation to all of us,” he says.
Net metering, or net-energy billing, allows solar generators to get credits toward their energy bills when they put excess electricity on the grid. The argument is over how much they should receive for that.
Berry and others say the credits should remain at least at current levels to ensure the industry’s survival and growth in Maine. But opponents say that throws unfair costs onto other consumers who pay for the electric lines that carry that excess solar energy onto the grid.
Those costs will grow, opponents argue, because they are tied to growing costs for electricity transmission in Maine. And some opponents, including Gov. Paul LePage, argue it’s mostly the rich who can afford the technology.
But incentive supporters pushed back.
“My husband and I have a combined income that is considered lower-middle-class, so we had to borrow money to install solar panels,” says supporter Jill Lindsay.
Lindsay says she and her husband installed solar panels on their New Harbor home last year, and the financial mechanics depended on the net billing paybacks. But there’s more to it, she says.
“We chose solar because we believed it was the right and responsible thing to do to help stop the increase of global warming and protect our state and planet for our children and the future. If we lose net metering in Maine that would be financially devastating for our family and many others,” she says.
“Net metering is a relic of the distant past,” says Ashley Brown, who directs an electricity policy group at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, which is funded by utilities including Central Maine Power.
Brown argues that the cost of solar power technology is rapidly dropping, and that net energy incentives distort the market by stalling savings installers are enjoying from being passed on to end consumers. Better, he argues, to create new incentives for investments that will improve solar power’s efficiency.
“Things like track-and-tilt technology which follow the sun much better to get the capacity factor up from 14 percent, batteries, smart inverters, encourage utilities to use smart meters so we can use pricing that encourages technology,” he says. “Those are modern incentives for solar energy.”
Other opponents of preserving current net metering incentives, and even some supporters, are also focusing on “smart meters,” which can closely monitor electricity inputs and outputs in real time. One bill would depend on smart meters to allow payments to small-scale generators to be closely aligned with the real-time market value of electricity.
Supporters of that approach note that on the hottest, sunniest days, when air conditioners are blasting and electricity prices run high, solar arrays are pumping out electrons — electrons that could turn a pretty penny for their makers.
The Legislature is expected to take up that proposal, the Berry net-metering bill and more solar power measures later this month.