Maine solar legislation released

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Maine legislature has printed a bill whose enactment would reshape the state's solar energy laws.  The bill, An Act To Modernize Maine's Solar Power Policy and Encourage Economic Development, has been numbered as LD 1649.  It would replace a billing treatment called net metering with a series of long-term contracts and utility procurement orders.

Solar photovoltaic panels on the roof of Gallagher's Auto Parts, in Patten, Maine.

Under net metering or “net energy billing,” an electric utility invoices a customer with solar panels based on the difference between the customer's energy use and the solar project's output.  If the generator output exceeds monthly usage in any billing period, the customer earns kilowatt-hour credits that can be banked and netted against future usage.  The bipartisan non-governmental organization National Conference of State Legislatures has noted that "Net metering policies have facilitated the expansion of renewable energy through on-site generation, also known as distributed generation."

But a 2015 Maine legislative resolve directed the Public Utilities Commission to convene a stakeholder group to consider alternatives to net energy billing, largely in the hopes of helping more consumers connect with solar power.  As part of that case, the state's Office of Public Advocate proposed a structure where individual solar projects would enter into contracts to sell solar power to their local utility.  While stakeholders developed consensus around exploring the concept, there was not uniform agreement around whether it should immediately replace net metering, or whether the new concept should operate "side by side" with net metering for some test period.

The bill now printed as LD 1649 largely reflects the contract-based, solar standard buyer proposal.  It would direct the Public Utilities Commission to enter into twenty-year contracts for the procurement of 248 megawatts of solar energy between 2017 and 2022.  The bill allocates 60 megawatts (24%) to grid-scale solar distributed generation resources; 45 megawatts (19%) to large-scale community solar resources; 25 megawatts (10%) to commercial and industrial resources; and 118 (47%) megawatts to residential and small business resources.  This would represent a significant expansion of solar capacity in Maine compared to what has been developed to date.

Under LD 1649, customers could seek contracts to sell solar power to a standard buyer (the utility) at prices set by the Public Utilities Commission. The standard buyer's stated role is to purchase the output of these distributed generation resources, aggregate the portfolio of resources procured, and sell it into the relevant New England markets. 

Consumers with projects up to 250 kilowatts in capacity could have two options.  The first is to sell the project's entire output to the utility under a contract, and buy all the customer's electricity requirements back from the utility in a separate transaction.  This is sometimes described as a "buy-all, sell-all" structure.

The second option is to use onsite generation to first offset electric consumption, and sell any excess electricity.  This would allow hourly offsetting of onsite load, but would not allow customers to carry forward monthly credits for excess production that could be used to offset future load.  This differs from net metering under Maine's current regulations, which measure net energy use over an entire month billing period, and carry credits forward for up to 12 billing months.

This contracting structure would effectively replace net metering. No new customers could participate in net metering once the new rules take effect.  Those residential and small business customers who already net meter their loads against a distributed solar project would face a choice: either seek a long-term contract under the new program, or elect to net meter for 12 more years.    

The bill would also largely eliminate Maine's policy of virtual net metering, which has allowed customers to net meter load at one site against a solar project located elsewhere in the same utility's service territory.

As of late on March 9, LD 1649, An Act To Modernize Maine's Solar Power Policy and Encourage Economic Development, had not yet been referred to committee, nor a public hearing scheduled.

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