Solar power advocates are hailing a decision to restore incentives to homeowners with solar installations, the first of what they hope are many legislative changes to support the industry.

The optimism follows eight years of former Gov. Paul LePage’s administration, which worked to roll back incentives for solar power because of the costs.

Gov. Janet Mills, who is planning to install solar panels on the Blaine House, on Tuesday signed a bill that restores credits for homeowners who generate electricity that is fed onto the power grid, and rolls back a requirement for two electric meters on homes with solar arrays. Both moves reverse requirements adopted when LePage was in office, which industry leaders said would discourage people from installing home solar arrays.

“This is certainly something to celebrate because the solar industry in Maine has not had a lot of wins in the last eight years,” said Danny Piper, co-owner of Sundog Solar in Searsport.

The bill that Mills signed restores net-metering, a system under which homeowners with solar power arrays can feed excess electricity onto the grid and get a credit equal to what they would pay to buy that electricity. LePage argued that the system favored wealthy homeowners and unfairly passed electricity costs onto other ratepayers. He pushed the Maine Public Utilities Commission to adopt gross-metering, a system in which credits would decrease over time.

The gross-metering system never went into full effect. Piper said the decision by Mills to bring back net-metering is a positive move, but Maine’s solar industry has lost ground.

“While this is a win for us, it really gets us back to where we were,” he said, and removes a policy that discouraged investments in solar. “We’ve struggled as a company to really just manage the whole gross-metering (requirement). It’s been a mess.”

Phil Coupe, the co-founder of ReVision Energy, a South Portland company that designs and installs solar electric systems, agreed that the bill Mills signed should be seen as crucial first step.

“We’ve been hobbled by gross-metering since it was foisted on us,” Coupe said. “It would have added a lot of costs” and the prospect of reduced credits would discourage people from installing solar arrays.

“It created doubts in the minds of consumers,” he said. “It really hurt us.”

Other bills before the Legislature also focus on solar power, including one that would have a homeowner with a solar array qualify for a homestead exemption. Others include a “Green New Deal” for Maine, requiring electricity supplies to generate at least 80 percent of their electricity from renewable resources including solar power by 2040, requiring  Efficiency Maine to come up with a comprehensive plan for shifting more electricity generation to renewable sources and exempting solar electricity equipment from property taxes.

While the bill Mills signed has a dollars-and-cents impact on homeowners with solar arrays, Vaughan Woodruff of Insource Renewables in Pittsfield said a consistent policy of support will be even more important in the next few years.

“Just the perception is an even more impactful piece of it,” Woodruff said, with homeowners better able to count on installing a system that could pay for itself, generally in about eight to 13 years.

VARYING COSTS

Coupe and others said the industry is currently buoyed by a rush of homeowners looking to install systems by the end of the year. Currently, 30 percent of the cost of a system can be deducted as a credit on federal taxes. But that credit will roll back – to 26 percent next year, 22 percent in 2021 and 10 percent in 2022 – so customers looking to install arrays are moving quick to capture the largest possible tax break.

The sharp reduction in that federal tax break, coupled with gross-metering, would cause a lot of potential customers to rethink their plans, said Robert Howe, a lobbyist who has a solar array on the roof of the barn at his house in Brunswick.

Howe, who previously ran a trade group for builders who specialize in constructing energy-efficient homes, put his system in four years ago and said that on all but extremely cold and cloudy days, it can power his heat pump, electric water heater and charge an electric car he drives.

“We’ve been very happy with it,” Howe said, although he notes that a couple of winters ago, he had to remove snow and ice with a plastic roof rake. He did that removal very carefully, he said, because  each solar panel cost about $1,000 and damaging one would lead to a costly repair.

Being able to get a full credit from Central Maine Power for power he puts on the grid was a key part of the financial calculation surrounding having an array installed, he said.

Restoring net-metering “is going to result  in more residential solar installations,” Howe said. “These installations aren’t cheap and that incentive could make a difference for folks.”

Coupe hopes Mills and lawmakers follow through with more moves to help Maine move from a reliance on electricity generated by fossil fuels to renewable sources. He said part of that move requires a recognition that electricity generators and the companies that distribute it – primarily CMP and Emera Maine – need to be successful as the state tries to promote renewable sources.

That will require investments in battery storage, solar and wind power and expanding current programs, such as financial help for homeowners who switch to more efficient heat sources, such as heat pumps, he said.

Mills and the Legislature, Coupe said, need to think big.

“What we need is Utility 2.0,” Coupe said.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]

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