Green power advocates press regulators to adopt solar-friendly rules

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AUGUSTA — Solar power advocates are asking Maine utility regulators to reconsider a recent ruling they say will crimp the growth of a much-needed new energy source.

A coalition of critics filed a formal petition Tuesday with the Maine Public Utilities Commission calling on it to take another look at its decision to phase out credits that residential solar energy owners have received for decades and impose new charges for the solar power that homeowners and businesses produce and consume themselves.

The ruling includes “some of the most extreme anti-solar provisions anywhere in the country,” said Dylan Voorhees, the Natural Resources Council of Maine’s climate and clean energy director.

Holly Noyes of ReVision Energy said it is “difficult to understand” why the regulatory commission changed the rules in a way that’s likely to hinder solar’s expansion in a state that badly needs new energy sources.

The PUC’s Jan. 31 decision kept existing rules in place for residential solar users, but it phases out the credits during the next 15 years because of the declining cost of installing solar panels. Its chairman, Mark Vannoy, said the new approach followed careful review and analysis of many comments on the issue.

For solar proponents, the decision threatens to undermine the development of more solar power, which makes up only 1 percent of the state’s peak electricity demand. That’s the lowest in New England.

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Vaughan Woodruff, the owner of Insource Renewables in Pittsfield, said that instead of cutting back on “a very thin slice” of the energy market, state regulators ought to be pushing for more solar because it would bring good jobs and “a more responsible energy mix” to the state.

Caitlyn Frame, an owner of The Milkhouse in Monmouth, said she figured her business would benefit from switching to solar power but has hit the brakes on a planned project because it’s not feasible to go forward without the long-standing net-metering rules that helped ensure that it’s worth it.

Solar advocates said utility regulators have 20 days to respond to their petition for reconsideration. Voorhees said he can’t handicap what the panel might do, but he admitted he was “not overly optimistic.”

If the commission declines, advocates have the option of heading to court. But they’re also hoping the Legislature, which has generally supported solar power, will come to their assistance.

Emily Green, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, said the ruling they’re contesting is incompatible with existing state law and is bad policy.

She said the Legislature has laid out that it is in the public interest to encourage the expansion of solar energy in Maine as a source of electricity and jobs.

The commission’s rule that undermined decades of policy “does none of those things,” she said, even though it has no power to contradict what legislators have dictated as state policy.

Green said the ruling will “actually harm Maine’s businesses and consumers” instead of helping the solar industry to flourish.

One of the more controversial pieces of the commission’s ruling requires the installation of a second, dedicated meter that would measure the total amount of electricity a solar system generates. They would be used to let utilities charge solar customers a fee for electricity they generate that never leaves their home or business, advocates said.

Woodruff compared it to charging a homeowner for the propane they use when a backup generator kicks in during a power outage.

The ruling justifies the change by arguing that unless there is a charge for transmission and distribution, even for energy produced at homes, other people will be stuck paying the tab for the electrical grid that services those properties.

It’s one of the issues that advocates hope the commission will reconsider.

Ed Miller, a board member with the Maine Public Health Association, said the state should be encouraging more solar power because it offers “clean, healthy energy.”

He said that pollution caused by burning fossil fuels harms many Mainers who are vulnerable to bad air, including those with asthma, chronic heart and lung problems and the elderly — all groups that exist in higher-than-average numbers in Maine.

The reconsideration petition was filed by more than 2,000 individuals and two dozen businesses and organizations, including Maine Audubon, Maine Conservation Voters, the Maine Public Health Association, the Maine chapter of the Sierra Club and the American Lung Association of the Northeast.

Gov. Paul LePage is also unhappy with the ruling. But he’s upset that it didn’t take a harder line against special treatment for solar energy. The governor has repeatedly said what he cares about is lowering the cost of energy in Maine.

LePage complained that businesses and ordinary ratepayers are shelling out more to help those who can afford rooftop solar panels.

But advocates said that everyone saves if solar energy production goes up, especially at peak use periods, and reduces the necessity for utilities to buy extra electricity at its most expensive or to build new generating facilities.

Maine has the highest percentage of renewable energy use east of the Mississippi River, mostly because of its use of hydropower. But it also has wind and biomass production.

Both Noyes and Woodruff said they are examples of the way more reliance on solar can help Maine keep and attract college graduates who are eager for good jobs. Each returned to the Pine Tree State to work in positions in the solar industry.

Noyes said she grew up on a dairy farm, went to Bates College in Lewiston and found jobs in Massachusetts that would let her pay off her student loans. But she was happy to have the chance to come back to Maine last spring.

“A great job in solar energy made that possible,” Noyes said.

By failing to seize the opportunity in solar energy that many other states are pushing, Woodruff said, “Maine has basically watched all this development go by.”

Voorhees said the petition hopes to show regulators the error of their decision.

“We’re giving them one last chance to get this right and to avoid taking us in a backward direction,” he said.

Holly Noyes is a Bates College graduate who works for ReVision Energy. She was among renewable energy advocates who presented a petition to the Maine Public Utilities Commission on Tuesday asking it to reconsider rules that they believe will stymie the growth of solar power.

Emily Green, a staff attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, talks about solar energy while Ed Miller, a board member of the Maine Public Health Association, looks on Tuesday.

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