BAR HARBOR — A group working to double Mount Desert Island’s capacity for solar electricity generation is undeterred by the Legislature’s decision last week to uphold Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a bill adjusting rules for solar power rates.
Solarize MDI, a project of A Climate to Thrive (ACTT), has contracts for 523 kilowatts worth of new photovoltaic panel arrays at homes and businesses here. When they kicked off the project April 15, ACTT coordinator Joe Blotnick said total solar capacity on MDI feeding into the “grid” here operated by Emera Maine was 646 kW.
The political fight in Augusta and the state’s Public Utilities Commission has been over “net metering,” the current practice for utilities to compensate rooftop solar owners for the electricity they generate. Customers receive a credit on their electric bill for the power their systems “feed back” into the grid.
Under net metering, that credit applies to the transmission and delivery portion of the bill as well as to a customer’s actual electricity usage.
The PUC released a new rule earlier this year that would phase out net metering over 10 years beginning next year. Once the phase-out is complete, solar array owners would still receive credits on the electricity usage portion of their bills but would pay full freight for transmission and delivery.
The bill LePage vetoed would have scrapped that rule and issued new instructions to the PUC for net metering. After last week’s vote, the rule stands. But systems installed before the end of 2017 will be grandfathered for 15 years, which is part of why Solarize MDI has been focused on building new systems this year.
LePage has argued that the net metering system amounts to an unfair subsidy to solar. “His theory is that the utility has to have transmission and delivery lines, they have to upgrade that equipment for everybody,” Blotnick said. “If a power plant generates energy, they sell it to the utility for that energy portion of the bill, they’re not getting subsidized for the transmission and delivery part.
“The concern is about homeowners with solar not paying anything for transmission and delivery so all the other consumers are going to have to essentially pay more to keep the lines running.”
But Blotnick said solar advocates don’t think it would be fair to let net metering drop to zero. A customer might receive, for example, a credit for 6 cents per kilowatt-hour on the electricity supply portion of their bill, but still pay 6 cents per kwh for distribution and 3 cents per kwh for transmission.
“Then the utility is paying the customer 6 cents per kwh for something they’re going to sell for 18 cents per kwh,” he said. “Owners of solar systems would be effectively charged to use the electricity they’re generating on their own property. It would be like growing your own tomatoes and then also having to pay for them.”
Central Maine Power was a leading player in the fight against the most recent net metering bill. But Blotnick said Emera has been supportive of ACTT’s efforts. The utility has even asked for an increase in solar capacity here.
“They approached us and said, ‘Can you find a place for one megawatt of solar?’”
Increased generation on MDI would help the utility in two ways, he said. For one, solar arrays add the most energy to the system at peak demand times, when Emera is otherwise paying as much as 75 cents/kwh. “If we’re adding solar energy at 8 cents/kwh, they’re buying really cheap power.”
There’s also an emergency consideration, Blotnick said. If something happened to the transmission lines that cross the causeway at the head of the island as happened recently in Cape Hatteras, N.C, the community could be without power for an extended period and may need to be evacuated. But with enough small-scale electricity generation on the island itself, Emera may be able to keep the lights on while they work to repair the damage.