National companies seek to stop solar power deal struck in Maine

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AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Maine's rooftop solar installers and the state's major utilities have set aside long-standing differences to strike a deal they say could increase solar power in the state tenfold in five years.

But national solar power companies are trying to stop it.

The Alliance for Solar Choice, a national industry group focused on defending rooftop solar, and California-based firms Sunrun and SolarCity want to kill a key part of the plan as it moves through the Maine Legislature.

Although the companies don't work in Maine, they've dispatched lobbyists to Augusta, funded an opinion poll and are running a social media advertising blitz warning that the deal would allow utility monopolies to "tighten their hold on their captive consumer base."

The solar industry is watching Maine closely because the state is considering a novel solution for a regulatory problem that more than a dozen states are also wrestling with, said Autumn Proudlove, senior policy analyst at the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center.

"What Maine is doing, even though there is not a lot of solar there, has national implications," she said.

Utility companies in other states are also watching Maine and working behind the scenes to push back against the national solar firms, said Tony Buxton, a lobbyist for the state's large industrial energy users, such as paper companies.

"It's almost a proxy war," he said.

The Maine plan addresses the contentious issue of net metering, a long-standing financial incentive used in Maine and other states.

First implemented in the 1980s when solar panels were more costly than they are today, net metering requires utilities to provide a one-to-one credit to solar customers on their bills for the surplus power they generate and feed into the grid.

Utilities around the country oppose this practice because they say it doesn't compensate them for the full cost of providing service to all customers, such as maintaining power lines and substations.

The solar industry and environmentalists say solar panels help all electric consumers by reducing the strain on electric grids on summer days when demand soars and utilities are forced to buy additional power at high rates.

The two sides have clashed most publicly in Nevada, where regulators last year eliminated net metering for solar customers and drastically reduced the payout solar customers receive for their surplus electricity. Both SolarCity and Sunrun in recent months have announced they're leaving Nevada and laying off hundreds of employees.

In Maine, lawmakers are considering a bill to replace net metering with "next metering," a system that lets utilities sign 20-year contracts with residential solar customers. Instead of paying retail price, utilities would pay rates set by regulators.

The bill would grandfather the existing practice for current solar customers through 2029. It would also lift barriers on community-owned and large-scale solar farms.

The plan aims to grow solar capacity in Maine in five years from about 18 megawatts today to 250 megawatts, enough electricity to supply the energy needs of 40,000 homes.

Maine's rooftop solar companies and Maine-based environmentalists are embracing the plan because they worry that no deal could leave them worse off. Maine's net metering rules are up for review this year, and Gov. Paul LePage, a conservative Republican, is hostile to solar, raising fears that regulators could kill net metering altogether and leave nothing in its place.

"The issue for our industry is policy stability," said Fortunat Mueller, a partner with a Portland-based ReVision Energy, the largest in the state with 130 employees. "When policies are stable, homeowners and businesses can make investments."

But the Maine installers are supporting a flawed plan that would scare off solar customers and increase the electric bills of people without solar, said Chris Rauscher, a lobbyist for Sunrun, which operates in 15 states, including Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

"If you just get rid of the only market structure that has worked at the outset, you risk all the jobs for an untested thing," he said.

Rauscher said he prefers that existing net metering policies remain in place as an option alongside the new system until regulators can evaluate how the new system is working.

Rauscher's proposal would effectively kill the bill because the utility companies and the Maine Office of the Public Advocate would drop their support, said Vaughan Woodruff, owner of Insource Renewables, a Pittsfield solar installer with 11 employees.

"Like any collaboratively negotiated bill, if you pull one stick out the whole thing falls part," he said.

Maine is trying to create a new solar policy based on a compromise reached among local players after months of negotiations, something South Carolina achieved two years ago, said David Wright, former president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.

He said the approach produces better outcomes.

"Once all these people from the outside leave, you still have the policy and the companies and installers who have got skin in the game," he said.

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