AUGUSTA — As expected, Gov. Paul LePage has vetoed a solar energy bill strongly supported by environmental groups and solar installation companies.

The bill, L.D. 1504, would direct the Maine Public Utilities Commission to adopt new rules that would keep so-called “net metering” solar energy incentives in place but would reduce them over time. Supporters proposed the bill after the PUC voted earlier this year to phase out net metering – also known as net energy billing – in which homeowners with solar energy panels receive credit for 100 percent of the full retail value of excess electricity they feed back into the power grid.

But in his veto letter, LePage repeated his contention that net metering “subsidizes the cost of solar panels at the expense of the elderly and poor who can least afford it.” Supporters, who will need to maintain the two-thirds majorities they had in both chambers to override the veto, countered by accusing LePage of blatantly misrepresenting the bill’s intentions in order to turn Republican votes.

Michael Mayhew’s green home in Boothbay Harbor features many solar panels. A bill that aimed to prevent changes to the credits for solar panel owners passed the Maine House 105-40 and cleared the Senate 29-6 – both majorities that, if they held, would be sufficient to override a veto. Staff photo by John Patriquin

“It is a very cynical attempt to flip more Republican votes by lying to them,” said Steve Hinchman, legal counsel for ReVision Energy, the largest solar installation company in Maine.

Solar policy has been a major issue in Maine since last session, when LePage successfully vetoed a net metering bill that had divided the industry.

After multiple changes, the current version of the bill that passed the Legislature late last month would reduce that credit to 90 percent for new customers applying between Dec. 31, 2017, and Dec. 31, 2018, and then to 80 percent the next year. The bill also would allow the PUC to further reduce the credit amount for future net metering customers, but customers could keep receiving credits for up to 15 years. The legislation would also require the PUC to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the policy.

An outspoken critic of net metering, LePage contended in his veto letter that L.D. 1504 continues the “unsustainable practice” of net metering.

“Even the Natural Resources Council of Maine has acknowledged that net energy billing ‘is not a preferred long-term policy,’ ” LePage wrote. “However, rather than moving away from this practice to a more sustainable approach, L.D. 1504 sets net energy billing into statute in perpetuity.”

He also said that the bill contains “serious drafting errors that will result in irrational outcomes,” such as solar customers seeing their power bills drop even if they don’t generate any electricity.

Not so, according to ReVision Energy’s Hinchman. The language in the current bill, he said, mirrors the existing PUC language on net metering. The only change, he said, is that it would allow the “step-down” of compensation rates to apply to the excess electricity being sold back into the grid.

“That is the governor’s attempt to mislead legislators,” Hinchman said. “It is flat-out not true.”

LePage’s veto of the bill sets the stage for what could be another close vote on solar energy in the Maine House. The current bill passed the House on a 105-40 vote and the Senate by a vote of 29-6, which are both veto-proof margins. But LePage has successfully vetoed even bills that passed unanimously in both chambers, thanks, in large part, to his ability to flip enough Republican votes in the Democratic-controlled House. The Legislature has scheduled a veto session for July 20.

Last year, the House upheld a LePage veto of a much more sweeping solar bill by just a few votes, thereby setting in motion the controversial PUC decision to begin phasing out net metering.

Beth Ahearn, political director of the organization Maine Conservation Voters, said LePage was “wiping away bipartisan progress for the second year in a row” on solar energy issues.

“The governor’s actions could threaten good-paying solar jobs, our environment, and our climate future,” Ahearn said in a statement. “This veto is bad for Maine, and goes against the majority of Maine people who have made their support for solar power known for over two years. We are calling on our state legislators to stand with the Maine people who want to see our great state move forward and benefit from solar power by voting to override the governor’s veto of the solar bill.”

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

kmiller@mainetoday.com

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