After Gov. Paul LePage (R) vetoed comprehensive solar legislation in 2016, Maine lawmakers crafted a far more modest solar energy bill. And yet this year’s less ambitious bill still proved to be too pro-solar for LePage, who has consistently opposed policies that promote renewable energy in the state throughout his six years in office.
On Monday, LePage vetoed L.D. 1504, a bill that directs state regulators to study how to transition away from the state’s current system for reimbursing customers who own or lease solar panels whose excess power gets sent to the grid. Under the legislation, regulators would need to complete the study of the state’s solar industry by 2019.
Given his anti-renewables track record, solar energy proponents were not surprised by the governor’s latest veto. “The governor has been on a crusade against solar power and solar legislation for several years now,” Dylan Voorhees, climate and clean energy project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit environmental and clean energy group, told ThinkProgress.
In 2016, the Maine House of Representatives upheld the governor’s veto of a much more comprehensive solar bill by only two votes. That bill had the support of electric utilities, environmental groups, and solar installers. But “under dramatic political circumstances,” the legislature failed to override the veto, Voorhees said.
Solar proponents chose to draft a “very modest” bill this year that had a Republican sponsor, explained Beth Ahearn, political director for Maine Conservation Voters. The bill garnered more than two-thirds majorities in the Maine Legislature, enough to overturn LePage’s veto. However, supporters of the bill fear Republicans may change their votes next week.
The aggressive political maneuvering that occurred last year could return again this year, Voorhees said. One key distinction is that this year’s bill, unlike the 2016 legislation, had well above the two-thirds vote needed to override a veto.
Under net metering, homeowners receive credits on their electricity bills for excess solar energy they feed back into the grid. The latest legislation would reduce the credits that small generators receive based on transmission and distribution costs, giving them credits for 90 percent of what utilities charge starting in 2018. That would drop to 80 percent in 2019.
In his veto letter on Monday, LePage described net metering as poor policy that “subsidizes the cost of solar panels at the expense of the elderly and poor who can least afford it.” The governor also claimed that drafting errors in the legislation would result in the electricity bills of net energy billing customers being reduced even if they generate no electricity at all.
“The irony is the bill is a very weak protection of net metering,” Voorhees said. This bill directs the Maine Public Utilities Commission to go through a proceeding to develop alternatives. “It also says the PUC [public utilities commission] needs to do an actual cost-benefit analysis of net metering before we move forward. We need actual data and they failed to do that previously,” he said.
Earlier this year, the PUC adopted a rule that would weaken net metering, especially for new distributed generation customers. The rule would grandfather net-metering credits for current solar homeowners for 15 years, and phase out benefits for new solar owners over 10 years. The rule also requires electric utilities to install a second meter to measure the output of the customer’s distributed generation installation.
Both the Natural Resources Council of Maine and Maine Conservation Voters are challenging the PUC rule in court. If the legislature overrides the governor’s veto, however, the rule will not be allowed to take effect, making the legal challenges moot.
The ongoing political debates over the various measures have harmed the growth of Maine’s solar industry. “We are less than every other state in New England on a per-capita basis in our solar production,” Ahearn said. “In the New England states that have incentives, solar has gone gangbusters.”
Maine also has the lowest number of solar jobs per capita than any of the New England states. “We’re definitely behind,” said Voorhees, who attributed lower-performing industry to the lack of a strong solar policy and the maligning of the solar industry by the governor.
“Solar has a lot of potential and a lot of value, but it’s seen an anemic performance given the policy and regulatory environment in Maine,” Voorhees said.