For the second consecutive time, Maine state lawmakers narrowly failed to override the governor’s veto of compromise legislation meant to help boost rooftop solar.
The first time was back in April 2016, when Gov. Paul LePage, R-Maine, vetoed a popular bill to replace Maine’s solar net energy metering (NEM) policy with a novel market-based program. The bill was the result of a comprehensive stakeholder process among solar companies, utilities, environmental groups and lawmakers, but legislators sustained LePage’s veto after falling just three votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority.
As a result, the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) was tasked with addressing the future of NEM, a policy under which utilities compensate solar customers for their excess energy with credits. This past January, the PUC issued a ruling to gradually phase out NEM for rooftop solar customers, and although the commission included an important grandfather clause, many solar advocates joined NEM critics in speaking out against the ruling.
Dissatisfied with the PUC decision, state lawmakers went back to the drawing board earlier this year and devised a new bill: L.D.1504, or “An Act to Modernize Rates for Small-Scale Distributed Generation.”
However, LePage also struck down the new bill in July, and the House recently sustained the governor’s veto in August. Given his previous veto last year and public criticism of NEM, LePage’s decision came as no surprise.
In his veto letter for L.D.1504, the governor wrote, “This bill is poor policy, and as I have noted many times, net energy billing subsidizes the cost of solar panels at the expense
of the elderly and poor, who can least afford it.”
What was surprising, though, was the state legislature’s repeated failure to overrule LePage’s veto this time around. That’s because L.D.1504 had overwhelmingly passed both chambers in June with the two-thirds majority support that would be needed to nullify a veto.
Although the state Senate ultimately voted 28-6 to override the veto in August, the bill died after the House only voted 88-48 – which, like last year’s failure, was again three votes shy of the required two-thirds rule. Over a dozen House members didn’t show up to vote, and seven Republican representatives pulled their initial support for the bill and voted against a veto override.
L.D.1504 originally aimed to fully reverse the PUC’s ruling, but the final version included compromise amendments that still would have reduced NEM rates and weakened a few solar-friendly provisions. Nonetheless, the bipartisan bill contained several key measures championed by solar advocates.
For example, L.D.1504 would have officially solidified NEM in state law and repealed new PUC-established fees for solar customers. It also would have lifted a barrier to community solar adoption in Maine, increasing a state cap on how many participants can share in a single community solar project tenfold from 10 electric meters to 100 meters.
Perhaps most notably, L.D.1504 would have ordered the PUC to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of net-metered solar, as well as to submit its findings and recommendations for a viable NEM successor plan to lawmakers by 2019.
LePage wasn’t the only prominent bill opponent, either: According to a Press Herald report, Central Maine Power lobbied heavily against L.D.1504. The major utility claimed NEM unfairly burdens non-solar customers, even though a growing list of studies has debunked that common argument from many U.S. utilities.
“The solar bill was a significant compromise, crafted almost exclusively by Republican lawmakers and falling far short of the comprehensive solar bill considered in 2016, but the outcome was the same: The governor’s baseless ideology, aided by false claims from utilities, prevented Maine from moving forward with clean solar energy,” says Dylan Voorhees, climate and clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM), a big proponent of L.D.1504. “This failure leaves Maine with an arbitrary 10-person limit on community solar farms and allows the backward, extreme PUC rule on net metering to take effect.”
With the bill now dead, the PUC’s NEM phase-out plan is slated to kick in at the start of 2018.
Meanwhile, a coalition including NRCM, the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), the Industrial Energy Consumers’ Group, and New England solar installer ReVision Energy has vowed to move ahead with a lawsuit challenging the PUC ruling. NRCM says the case, launched in the Maine Supreme Court in May, “should be decided by the end of the year.”
CLF attorney Emily Green charges that the state legislature’s failure to override LePage’s L.D.1504 veto will have “a direct impact on the wallets of businesses and families across our state.”
“Despite the bill’s overwhelming passage in June and widespread public support, clean energy in Maine has once again fallen victim to Governor LePage’s and utilities’ anti-progress stance,” Green claims. “Regardless of this regressive decision by the legislature, CLF will continue fighting to ensure that solar power has a bright future in Maine.” – Joseph Bebon
Con Edison Wins Approval For Low-Income Solar Program
The New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) has approved utility Con Edison’s proposed pilot program to build solar arrays on company-owned rooftops and properties to make renewable energy available to low-income customers.
Con Edison says it expects to begin installing the first solar panels in 2018 on properties in Brooklyn, Queens and Westchester County. In this initial phase, the utility plans to install enough panels to generate 3 MW of power to serve 800 to 1,600 of its customers. Con Edison says there will be no cost to low-income participants, each of whom could realize savings of at least $60 per year.
The utility notes several factors have made it difficult for low-income customers to access solar energy: Many of them rent their homes or live in multi-family buildings where they do not have control of their roofs, and the upfront costs of installing solar and ability to borrow money can also be barriers.
“We thank the state Public Service Commission for its careful review and approval of the first phase of our Shared Solar Pilot Program, which will make renewable energy available to a group of customers who have been largely shut out of the solar market,” says Matthew Ketschke, Con Edison’s vice president of distributed resource integration. “More customers having access to renewable energy will mean a cleaner environment here in New York City and Westchester County.”
“This pilot program will not only show how community distributed generation, or CDG, can benefit a low-income neighborhood; it will also contribute to Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s visionary [50% by 2030] clean energy standard adopted by the commission last year,” comments PSC Chair John B. Rhodes. “By serving low-income residents with clean energy, Con Edison is filling a niche that hasn’t been fully served in the state. Furthermore, we believe this project, and the insight gained from this pilot, will lead to market development of other shared solar arrays around the state that will bring the benefits of clean energy to more low-income customers.”
According to Con Edison, developers will bid competitively for contracts to install arrays on utility-owned properties. The utility also plans to begin forming partnerships with community organizations that can help get the word out to customers who may be able to benefit from the program.
Although the pilot project will initially total 3 MW, Con Edison also proposed in its 2016 filing an expansion to 11 MW that could serve a total of 6,000 low-income customers if the pilot is deemed successful. The utility estimates the cost of the first phase of the program to be about $10 million.
N.C. Governor Backs Solar, Fights Wind Moratorium
Citing the importance of the legislation for the solar industry, Gov. Roy Cooper, D-N.C., has signed into law H.B.589, a comprehensive energy bill that is expected to help boost North Carolina’s solar sector but also establishes a moratorium on new wind farm permits in the state through 2018.
The legislation is the result of a long stakeholder process among legislators, renewable energy developers, utilities and many other parties, but the controversial wind development measure was added in the eleventh hour. Making it clear that he opposes the wind side of the bill, though, Cooper has also signed an executive order aimed at mitigating the effects of the moratorium.
“A strong renewable energy industry is good for our environment and our economy,” the governor states in a press release. “This bill is critical for the future of significant increases in our already-booming solar industry. I strongly oppose the ugly, last-minute, politically motivated wind moratorium. However, this fragile and hard-fought solar deal will be lost if I veto this legislation and that veto is sustained.”
Led by state Reps. John Szoka, R-Cumberland, and Dean Arp, R-Union, House lawmakers crafted the comprehensive approach to overhauling and modernizing North Carolina’s energy policies. According to a press release from the House speaker, H.B.589, otherwise known as the Competitive Energy Solutions plan, implements a competitive bidding process for solar developers to control costs and foster market-driven solutions for power customers in North Carolina. The legislation also establishes a rooftop solar leasing program in the state, which is expected to allow customers to work with private parties and take advantage of a competitive market to install renewable energy with competitive pricing. Among other actions, H.B.589 also creates a Green Source Rider Program, which will allow large utility customers, such as corporations, to offset their electricity usage with renewable energy.
In a statement, Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), thanks Cooper for his “leadership in signing … a measure that will significantly enhance the solar market in North Carolina and continue the growth of solar jobs within the state.”
“The programs created by this legislation, namely the competitive solicitation process for new utility-scale solar and the addition of a rooftop solar leasing program, will help North Carolina retain its position as a top market for solar in the United States,” Hopper explains.
Randy Wheeless, spokesperson for North Carolina-based utility company Duke Energy, says, “We are pleased to see this important legislation signed into law – paving the way for a smarter energy future and benefiting all North Carolina customers. The solar aspects of this legislation will benefit residential, commercial and industrial customers alike – saving them money and allowing for more ways to secure renewable energy while also protecting the reliability of the energy grid. We look forward to offering new solar energy programs for our customers.”
Though satisfied with the legislation’s solar aspects, SEIA’s Hopper states, “Unfortunately, the last-minute inclusion of an 18-month wind moratorium was both unnecessary and disappointing, and we hope the governor’s executive order can help mitigate that portion of the bill. We stand by our colleagues in the wind industry and hope that legislators will see the positive economic development that both solar and wind offer to rural North Carolina.”
U.S. Senators Introduce Community Solar Bill
U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., have introduced the Community Solar Consumer Choice Act of 2017. The Senate bill, S.1670, would make permanent an existing U.S. Department of Energy program that promotes community solar by providing technical assistance at the request of state and local governments and includes specific provisions focused on boosting community solar in low-income communities. The bill would also encourage federal government participation in community solar nationwide.
The senators introduced the bill in coordination with the first annual Community Solar Summit, which was recently in Denver. Bennet also wrote an op-ed emphasizing his support for this clean energy development, highlighting community solar’s origins in Colorado and underscoring its importance for the country.
“Community solar is one of the most promising developments in renewable energy,” Bennet wrote in the op-ed. “It expands access to clean energy resources and helps households and businesses save on their electricity bills. Colorado is leading the way in this new model, but we have only begun to realize its promise.”
Several solar organizations and businesses have praised the introduction of the bill. For example, Jeff Cramer, executive director of the Coalition for Community Solar Access (CCSA), says, “CCSA – and its 36 industry members – welcome United States Senators Bennet and Heinrich’s leadership to encourage the expansion of consumer choice and access to solar for all through this legislation.”
“Community solar offers an opportunity for virtually any household or business to receive clean energy and utility bill savings from solar power,” adds Stan Greschner, vice president of nonprofit solar installer GRID Alternatives. “This bill specifically recognizes underserved communities that can most benefit from access to solar and the need to develop targeted solutions to ensure that households at lower income levels can participate.”
Paul Spencer, CEO of Clean Energy Collective, notes the national community solar developer has “grown to employ over 100 workers out of our Louisville, Colo., headquarters, with hundreds more engineers and skilled laborers constructing and operating our projects across the country. We see firsthand the benefits these local clean energy projects bring to communities, consumers and the electric grid, and it is our mission to make affordable community solar an option for everyone who wants it.”