Solar Debate Heads to Cold, Foggy Maine, Where Panels are Scarce

Solar Debate Heads to Cold, Foggy Maine, Where Panels are Scarce

(Bloomberg) Despite long winters, a famously foggy coastline and relatively few solar panels in operation, Maine is emerging as a pivotal U.S. state for determining how consumers will pay for power generated by the sun.

U.S. solar installations have boomed more than 10-fold in the past five years, driven in part by a policy known as net metering that requires utilities to pay their customers for extra solar energy from rooftop panels. That’s lowered consumers’ monthly bills, and also cuts into revenue for utilities that still must contend with their own fixed costs — spurring conflict between traditional power companies and solar providers.

Lawmakers in at least 17 states, from New England to the Sun Belt, are now considering changes to the economics of rooftop power, and the industry is watching every debate closely. Maine has proposed replacing net metering with a system that lets utilities sign 20-year contracts with residential solar customers. And instead of paying the retail price, as called for under current policies, utilities would pay rates set by regulators.

“Everyone is watching what happens in these small states, since they’re on the forefront of this issue,” said Autumn Proudlove, senior policy analyst at the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center . The debate in Maine kicked off in June, after customers had installed enough rooftop panels to account for 1 percent of peak demand, triggering a review. Lawmakers ordered regulators to work with solar companies and utilities to develop alternatives.

While the state ranks in the bottom third nationally in solar capacity with just 13 megawatts of installed capacity at the end of last year, the effort drew significant players. The Alliance for Solar Choice , a national pro-solar group, flew representatives to the meetings. Sunrun Inc., a San Francisco-based rooftop installer that has no operations in Maine, and the Edison Electric Institute, the utility-industry’s lobbying group, also participated. That led to the proposed new legislation , which was introduced in February.

The measure has been endorsed by more than a dozen Maine rooftop installers, including Portland-based ReVision Energy , the biggest in the state with 130 employees.

“Our goal in Maine […]

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