AUGUSTA, Maine - The House has overridden, by a vote of 107 to 40, Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of legislation aimed at encouraging community based solar electric power generation projects in the state. Mal Leary has more.
The original legislation was far more sweeping than the measure that got bipartisan support in the Legislature's Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee. It received a House vote of 125 - 19. It was then passed unanimously in the state Senate, after it was amended to remove a new set of complex definitions and new procedures for the Public Utilities Commission to follow in approving small, renewable energy projects.
The intent is to bolster a 2008 energy law that was supposed to encourage community-based solar projects, but didn't achieve the expected results. Rep. Jennifer DeChant, a Democrat from Bath, sponsored the original bill, and said the PUC had approved some projects under that original law, but not a single one has broken ground to construct a generation facility, and the PUC has not acted to force the firms to do what they said they would.
"For the last five years, this program has been neglected and right now we are going to tell them that the PUC must move in an expedited manner to clear that out, certify projects that can actually realize the intention of the bill," DeChant said.
She says non-performing projects can be decertified by the Public Utilities Commission if they are not operating by the end of 2018. Dover-Foxcroft Republican Norman Higgins serves with DeChant on the Energy Committee. He says the bill is a good compromise.
"It is what I refer to as the Lazarus bill - it kept coming back for consideration," Higgins said. "We spent the good part of four weeks on multiple work sessions looking at trying to fix what had been a well-intended bill that had not operated very well."
He argued the bill will put Maine back on track toward encouraging solar development. But Gov. Paul LePage, in his veto message, criticized the measure because he believes it will result in power being priced higher than ratepayers would otherwise be likely to pay - the governor estimated $15 million to $18 million a year over the 20 years of the contracts allowed in the measure.
Rep. Beth O’Connor, a Republican from Berwick, says that is too much to ask ratepayers to pay when many can’t pay their existing bills. "Forty-five thousand disconnections, and $13 million in debt - I will not subsidize a handful of special interest projects on the backs of the poorest of poor, and the ratepayers of the state of Maine."
Biddeford Rep. Martin Grohman, a Democrat, says it is not certain that the contracts will result in those higher costs for ratepayers that are anticipated by the governor.
"It’s easy to extrapolate from today’s prices and say that this would have a negative impact on energy prices going forward, but you could make the opposite argument in the winter time when our prices are higher," Grohman said. "Many of these projects will actually come in lower than the market rate."
Supporters of the legislation say it has strong support in the state Senate. But the Senate, dominated by Republicans, has yet to take up the governor’s veto of the bill.