AUGUSTA — Consumers interested in rooftop or community solar should stay tuned to what comes out of the Maine Legislature by the time members adjourn in June.
At issue is something called net energy billing, which in simple terms means when a home’s or business’s rooftop solar panels generate more electricity than needed onsite and the home or business owner gets credit for that electricity, which gets fed into the New England power grid.
For instance, a home with 22 solar panels may generate 906 kilowatts in June but only use 153 kilowatts that month; the extra 753 kilowatts go to the grid and the consumer gets a credit that’s applied when the consumer’s electrical demands are greater than the solar panels can produce, often in the winter.
How net energy billing is handled by each state impacts how much a residential rooftop or community solar customer receives for generating electricity.
After Gov. Janet Mills came into office, changes to net energy billing made solar investment more inviting in Maine. Solar is growing, especially large commercial projects with hundreds and hundreds of panels.
In the Maine Legislature, some Republicans are concerned the state’s current net energy billing level is too generous to solar panel owners, especially to huge solar projects. They fear that the amount of money utility companies have to pay solar panel owners for their electricity is too high, and the additional cost in the long run will be passed onto all ratepayers.
Democrats say that fear is overblown, and that more solar energy is needed to offset climate change and meet renewable energy goals.
But both sides say net energy billing should be looked at.
“For those of us who have rooftop solar, or a share or subscription to a community solar array, majority Democrats on my committee intend to make no changes,” said Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, co-chair of the Legislature’s Committee on Energy and Utilities.
Berry has proposed a brief moratorium (LD 709) on new, large 2 to 5 megawatt solar projects that would have acres and acres of solar panels.
“Any changes would only be made to very large arrays typically covering many acres, to ensure that the state continues to encourage a robust, competitive market that keeps costs down while encouraging more renewables,” he said.
A couple of bills from Rep. Jeff Hanley, R-Pittston, and Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, “proposed to roll things back dramatically,” Berry said, and those could impact rooftop or community solar.
Hanley acknowledged last week that with Democrats in the majority in the Legislature and with a Democratic governor, “I do not expect these to pass.”
The committee has a subcommittee that just started meeting this week to recommend what changes should be made, Stewart said Thursday.
“We’re hearing from interested parties, PUC (Public Utilities Commission), the Governor’s Energy Office, individual ratepayers, the utilities, the solar companies. That’s going on right now.”
Stewart acknowledged there’s no support for one of his bills, LD 249, which calls for doing away with net energy billing entirely. But, he said, changes are needed.
Additionally Maine’s power grid is not set up to handle the huge amounts of energy coming from the hundreds of proposed solar projects in Maine, critics say, which means substantial upgrades would be needed.
Stewart said he’s not opposed to solar. “Maine has set a goal of what we want our energy to be, where we want it to come from. That’s important. I do think we should be cognizant of our impact on the environment and climate.”
But he said it doesn’t make sense to allow solar companies based out of Chicago and elsewhere to make profits for shareholders at the expense of ratepayers.
When asked if someone planning rooftop solar or joining a community solar program should hold off pending the outcome of net energy billing legislation, Stewart said, “that’s a good question.” He then said rooftop solar is not the problem, that a resident considering it should “carry on. You’re in good shape.”
Dan Burgess, director of the Governor’s Energy Office, said Thursday he can’t speculate on the outcome of any legislation. “What I can say is that our office is committed to working with the Energy and Utilities Committee and stakeholders on this issue.”
Solar in all forms is an important part of Maine’s clean energy mix, Burgess said in an email. “It is helping reduce our dependence on fossil fuels to fight climate change and has generated millions (of dollars) in new investments into the state in just two years.”
With that progress comes the need to review policies, he said, to ensure the state is advancing a “solar market that appropriately balances investments” with the benefits of solar projects.
To learn more about community solar, which allows renters, homeowners and businesses alike to sign contracts with commercial solar projects with the intention of investing in cleaner energy and possibly lowering electric bills — without having to invest in their own solar panels — visit the Maine Public Advocate’s website at www.maine.gov/meopa/electricity/community_solar