WATERVILLE — Maine trails behind its New England neighbors when it comes to renewable solar energy, according to panelists at a solar energy forum Thursday night, and legislative action is needed if the state wants to make any great strides in the area.
The forum, held in the Diamond Building at Colby College, was attended by about 60 people.
Steve Kahl, an associate professor of science at Thomas College, moderated the panel, which discussed net metering and what Mainers might see for solar development in the years to come.
When it comes to per capita installations of solar energy, Connecticut has three times as much as Maine; Massachusetts, eight times; and Vermont, nine times. All five of the other New England states combined have twice as many per capita jobs in solar energy as Maine, and one has 10 times as many, according to Dylan Voorhees, the clean energy director at the Natural Resources Council for Maine, who was a panelist at the event.
Voorhees said he is afraid that solar isn’t going to grow at the pace that it could, and that Maine is going to lose opportunities because of that.
“The fundamentals of solar power are strong and they are getting better,” he said. “These fundamentals are completely free of any ideology of anybody in Augusta.”
The Legislature had passed a bill to provide a change to “net metering” that ultimately was vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage. Under this state rule, utility companies provide credit to customers with solar power they generate that goes back into the grid, so solar customers pay the net cost of their bills. The legislation would have also added more solar energy to the state’s portfolio.
Voorhees said he was pleased to see bipartisan agreement on the bill and a growing movement of people in Maine who want to see a change in solar energy.
A spokeswoman from LePage’s office did not reply to a phone call or email earlier Thursday seeking comment about the upcoming event.
Now the group that fought for the bill to pass has to hope for minimal changes until the next legislative session.
“Net metering is only barely a law in Maine,” said Tim Schneider, a public advocate in Maine who runs the office that represents utility customers.
The language says that the Public Utilities Commission “may” have a net metering policy, Schneider said, and it was waiting until the population of those who use solar energy hit 1 percent.
This year, Central Maine Power reported that 1 percent of its customers use solar energy, Schneider said, so the PUC has issued a notice of inquiry and will be looking for feedback from his office as well as the public. It’s possible the PUC could issue a new rule as early as next January.
The panel generally agreed that problems with solar energy policy would be best fixed at the legislative level, rather than with the PUC.
Not all panelists agreed on net metering, though. Solar customers still use the transmission distribution system to get their energy sent to them, so when their net bill comes back at zero, they’re not paying their fair share of the transmission cost, Schneider said. Right now, the scale of solar is small enough for that cost-shift not to have a huge effect on other ratepayers, he said; but if solar were to scale up, it could pose a problem.
Schneider would prefer an alternative to the net metering system, because dissecting cost shifts could get complicated.
“There’s a lot of embedded cost shifts in how we pay for electricity,” he said. Ratepayers who live in more remote areas technically cause cost shifts as well. Schneider also would rather use a method that would allow more people to use solar energy.
The vetoed bill proposed what the panelists called “next metering,” which was better for ratepayers who weren’t using solar power.
Nationally, solar companies opposed the bill because they had seen investments left stranded in Nevada, said Vaughan Woodruff, chairman of the committee for renewable energy and owner of Insource Renewables in Pittsfield. Nevada decided to not grandfather in solar customers when it stopped using the net metering method. Other states saw the outcome of that, and they feared what a change in Maine could mean for net metering nationally.
The panelists plan to head to Augusta again to propose a bill that will help the state of solar in Maine, but Voorhees is nervous about what will happen if they don’t see any progress again. They all compromised with their “enemies,” he said, and did what they were supposed to do, so they might have to go back to “pitchforks” if that still doesn’t work.
“There’s an energy revolution out there, and I’m worried that we’re still going to be talking about it when it’s already happened,” Woodruff said.
Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239