There are constant reminders that climate change is a threat to life as we know it on the planet. Rising sea levels will create serious troubles for coastal communities and the fishing industry in Maine. One way we can win this battle for our future is to take action in the present, by building clean, renewable energy that doesn't spew carbon into the atmosphere. So why is Governor Paul LePage's administration standing in the way?
One key problem is the governor's attitude towards net metering, a program that can help Maine get off climate change-inducing fossil fuels by transitioning to solar energy. Net metering is a billing arrangement that is pretty easy to understand: If you put solar panels on your roof, you can send the power you do not use back into the electricity grid, and receive credit for it on your bill. Net metering supports the expansion of distributed solar by reducing the costs to solar providers; it makes the transition to solar more affordable, and it potentially puts money back into the pockets of homeowners. What's not to like?
Tell that to LePage's Public Utilities Commission (PUC), which enacted new rule that eliminates net metering. They decided to reduce the amount of money that rooftop solar providers receive for excess energy they generate by 10% a year, until the payment equals zero.
Why take this action now? The PUC's rollback of Maine's net metering law comes as part of a mandatory review process triggered by solar power production reaching one percent of Central Maine Power’s installed capacity. Last year, when it became clear that Governor LePage's administration was using that process do away with net metering, the legislature produced an alternative plan to create incentives to encourage solar production. That was unsurprisingly vetoed by Governor LePage, and his assault on solar development continues to this day. He even asked PUC commissioners to resign because their attacks on net metering and solar did not go far enough.
Legislation introduced by Representative Seth Berry was introduced to overturn the PUC decision and ensure a continuation of net metering in Maine. Due to industry pressure, this bill died in committee. A compromised alternative passed, but it would still roll back net metering by 20% until 2022. Still, even this modest compromise is still likely to be vetoed by the governor.
Other states have tried to undo net metering policies, and the results speak for themselves. The outright elimination of retail net metering in Hawaii led to a loss of 35% of the state's solar jobs, precipitated by a 13% reduction in solar permit applications. Nevada cut net metering rates from 11 cents per kilowatt-hour to 2.6 cents, while the monthly service fee nearly tripled. That led Solar City and SunRun to stop operating in the state, taking hundreds of installation and maintenance jobs with them. After solar production came to a virtual halt, the Nevada Public Utilities Commission voted in December of last year to restore net metering for about 1,500 customers, and recently the governor signed legislation that almost fully restores net metering. But the damage has already been done, and it is still unclear if these moves will enable the residential solar sector to rebound.
Maine can be at the forefront of renewable energy development, but only if we have leaders who will stand up to fossil fuel interests. With the lack of leadership from our state and federal government, it is up to local governments to enact policies that will help support the development of clean renewable energy so we can move Maine towards a sustainable future, with good jobs and clean energy for all.