State policy governing solar-generated electricity in the State of Maine remains in limbo this spring, as the state legislature failed to overcome opposition from Governor Paul LePage on legislative action to reform the state's energy market in a way that would integrate the state's growing photovoltaic production into the market for traditionally generated power. LePage vetoed an energy policy reform bill in April, the Portland Press Herald reported (see: "LePage vetoes solar energy bill after compromise talks fail," by Tux Turkel), and an effort to override the veto fell two votes short this week (see: "Lawmakers uphold LePage veto, killing bill to boost solar energy," by Kevin Miller).
Until this year, rooftop solar production in Maine (as in many other states) benefited from a "net-metering" rule that requires power companies to pay residential PV owners full retail price for any power that grid-connected homeowners put back into the power grid on sunny days. But the law that implements net metering in Maine contains a provision requiring utility regulators to rewrite the rule as soon as solar power reaches one percent of the state's total electrical power — a benchmark that the state exceeded for one day in August 2015. Last summer the legislature directed the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to study alternatives to net metering, gathering input from all sides and making a recommendation for a new policy.
That report was delivered in January. But as the Portland Press Herald reported in February, the PUC task group didn't reach a full consensus (see: "As solar power grows in Maine, so does tension over its future shape and direction," by Tux Turkel). "The group found common ground on several important areas, such as how to encourage growth in commercial and industrial settings, community solar farms and utility-scale projects. And they did reach some agreement on a potential way to redesign net metering, based on a long-term contract approach developed by Tim Schneider, Maine’s public advocate," the paper reported. "But in a report the group sent to the Maine Public Utilities Commission early this month, it’s evident that the group’s members couldn’t agree on crucial details of how to transition to that net-metering alternative or how to price long-term contracts with customers. That leaves lawmakers with no clear path for legislation."
But the legislature did pass an energy-market reform bill based on a proposal from Maine's Office of the Public Advocate, an agency created to represent the interests of utility customers. Utility Dive reported on that proposal last summer (see: "Maine lawmakers propose groundbreaking way out of net metering wars," by Herman K. Trabisch). The proposal, crafted by Public Advocate Timothy R. Schneider, would have created a central market-maker called a "Standard Buyer," tasked with purchasing power capacity from small solar producers including both household and business suppliers, packaging the energy, and selling the aggregated production on the power market.
The plan fell apart, however, when Governor LePage insisted on capping the payment rate for local solar output at a price that solar producers said would have put them out of business. LePage, for his part, said he was only trying to be fair: the bill, he argued, would would increase energy prices for homes and businesses that cannot afford solar panels “by tens of millions of dollars – picking winners and losers in Maine’s energy mix.” In his veto message, LePage said: "I tried to negotiate in good faith with Democrats to reach a compromise that would not add to the burden of ratepayers... We could not reach an agreement. They are not serious about reducing the price of energy for Maine families or job creators.”
The problem now lands back in the lap of the state's Public Utilities Commission, which has not yet announced how it will proceed.