Bipartisan group rolls out plan to expand Maine solar power

By Tom Bell, Associated Press

Maine trails the rest of New England in the amount of energy generated by solar power and in jobs tied to the industry, but a bipartisan group hopes to change that with a bill that aims to increase solar power in the state tenfold in five years.

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Maine trails the rest of New England in the amount of energy generated by solar power and in jobs tied to the industry, but a bipartisan group hopes to change that with a bill that aims to increase solar power in the state tenfold in five years.

The bill would open the market for large-scale and community-based solar farms and allow people with rooftop solar panels to sign 20-year contracts with power companies. It also seeks to make the solar power market more predictable for large and small investors and lower electricity costs for all ratepayers.

Supporters say the proposal in five years would create an additional 250 megawatts of solar power, enough electricity to supply the energy needs of 40,000 homes.

A group of people representing electric power consumers, utilities, solar panel installers, environmentalists and Democratic and Republican lawmakers drafted the bill and submitted it Thursday to the Legislature's energy committee.

Public Advocate Tim Schneider, who's charged with protecting the interests of all consumers, said the bill would lower electricity costs for everyone because solar power works best in the summer when the region's energy needs peak. Also, he said the additional energy from solarcould allow utilities to spend less on expanding the power grid.

"Under nearly ever scenario we evaluated, it gave value to ratepayers," Schneider told the committee.

The Legislature created the group last year after a solar energy bill failed to overcome opposition from Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who has been critical of solar power because he believes it depends on subsidies that lead to higher costs for ratepayers.

The measure would grandfather in until 2030 the current practice in which solar customers pay utility companies only for the amount of electricity they consume minus what they generate. Utilities don't like that practice because it doesn't compensate them for the cost of maintaining the electric grid for all customers.

For new and existing customers, the bill allows them to sign 20-year contracts with utility companies for purchasing excess solar power. Contracts would allow consumers to borrow money to invest in solar panels, supporters say.

Community solar farms are now limited to 10 participants. The bill would allow community solar projects of all types and sizes — including community projects like those proposed in South Portland, Falmouth and Rockland — to move forward. It would also allow businesses and institutions to join those projects.

Rep. Nathan Wadsworth, from Hiram, the ranking Republican on the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, said the bill makes incentives in solar power more transparent and provides more certainty for consumers and businesses.

Bipartisan support for the bill is critical because its passage will probably need the support of a supermajority of legislators to override an anticipated veto from LePage, who has disparaged solar power, said Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

"Like most bills these days, the question is whether it can get two-thirds support," he said.

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