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Maine Lawmakers Dim the Promise of Solar Energy

This summer, I went to watch a YouTube video and, instead of clicking the “Skip ad” button, wound up watching the entire commercial before it. And I liked it. Take a look.

This ReVision Energy ad, clearly targeted at people from my home state of Maine, isn’t just entertaining, but it also does a great job of laying out the benefits that solar energy can provide – even in a place like Maine that is cold and dark much of the year. Rooftop solar panels can save homeowners money on electric bills and – when paired with electric heat pumps – on heating and air conditioning costs. This pairing has the added benefit of protecting homeowners from fluctuating home heating oil prices, which can leave many deeply vulnerable to the cold each winter.

Seeing this ad made me excited because I took it as a sign that solar energy was really taking off in Maine. One week later, though, in August 2017, my representatives voted to implement a rule that will seriously impede the growth of the solar energy industry in Maine. The new rule will make Maine the first state where utilities can charge solar panel owners a transmission fee for the energy they generate and use in their own homes. Transmission fees are included in electric bills to pay for the construction and upkeep of power lines. Assigning these fees to energy that customers both generate and use in their homes – which never passes through power lines – makes no sense and is unfair. Some local opponents of the rule have likened it to a grocery store charging you for tomatoes from your own garden.

The new rule will also begin phasing out the important practice of net metering in January 2018. When solar panel owners generate more energy than they need at a given point in time, they can export this energy to the grid in exchange for credit. They can then use that credit to pay for electricity they receive from the grid later, when their solar panels aren’t generating enough energy. Net metering is crucial for the solar energy industry to thrive and is a fair practice, since solar power generally produces more benefits for the grid than costs.

Unfortunately, Maine is not the first state to overturn net metering. Across the country, fossil fuel interests and utilities are fighting to change states’ policies around solar energy in order to slow its rapid growth and protect existing business models (see our report Blocking the Sun for the shady details). These attacks are taking place in all types of states – from ones where solar energy is still small, like Montana, to those where solar energy is well-established, like Nevada. 

Solar energy benefits the grid, the environment, and Maine communities in a variety of ways. For example, solar energy helps fight global warming, which is already impacting Maine in many ways, including by threatening shellfish harvests, increasing tick populations and the spread of Lyme disease, and shortening the season for winter recreation. Distributed solar energy can also save all electric customers money, not just those with solar panels on their roofs, by helping to offset costs for utilities.


Solar Panels on the roof of the South Berwick Public Library in Maine

To protect these benefits, a coalition of groups in Maine jointly appealed to the Maine Supreme Court to overturn the new rule shortly after the August vote.This filing claims that the new transmission charge is unlawful and that a proper economic analysis did not go into the plan to phase out net metering. Opponents of the new rule will also try to overturn it again when the Maine Legislature reconvenes in January 2018.

To protect our climate and allow all Mainers – like the guys in the ReVision Energy ad – to enjoy the benefits of solar energy, we should work to protect and create policies and programs that allow solar energy to thrive in Maine.