By Gary Friedmann
Net metering, often called net energy billing, has been around in Maine since the 1980s. Net metering policies allow homeowners with solar panels to be paid for the energy they produce and send back into the grid. In Maine, this program allows homeowners to receive credit for the excess electricity they produce, which they can use to purchase power back from the grid.
As of 2018, a majority of states had some form of net metering system in place. Last year, the Maine Public Utilities Commission projected that if all of the net energy billing projects with current agreements become operational, millions of dollars of lost utility revenues could be passed onto ratepayers. Critics of net energy billing quickly seized on it, arguing, via slick PR campaigns and highly paid lobbyists, that such policies don’t “get Maine climate right.”
That argument completely ignores 100 years of tax policy and incentives that have subsidized utility companies and the fossil fuel industry to the tune of trillions of dollars. The International Monetary Fund pegs annual global subsidies for fossil fuels at $5.2 trillion, with the United States offering an estimated $649 billion to companies. “The underpricing of fossil fuels,” the IMF points out, “remains pervasive and substantial.”
Several bills passed by Maine lawmakers in the past two years have been aimed at correcting this imbalance. And they’re working: In 2019, LD 91 reinstated net metering for homeowners and small businesses to be paid for the energy their solar panels send into the grid, while LD 1711 removed barriers, expanding the metering cap on community solar participation and allowing more Mainers to opt for solar. These and other laws have resulted in an unprecedented expansion of the solar industry here, bringing jobs and clean energy into Maine.
Thanks largely to those changes, solar panels are popping up everywhere — on roofs, in fields on old landfills. Phil Bartlett, chairman of the Maine Public Utilities Commission, told Maine Public earlier this year, “I think this program has been wildly successful.” So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that those whose profits are threatened are pushing back.
Net metering policies have also promoted an industry that saves us money. Synapse Energy Economics documents that “behind-the-meter” (BTM) solar created $1.1 billion in energy cost savings in the six New England states from 2014-2019 by reducing the need to run other power plants.
Perhaps most importantly, the increase in solar (prompted in large part by more favorable net metering policies) has reduced the amount of pollution generated in our communities. According to Synapse, between 2014-2019, BTM solar reduced CO2 emissions in New England by 4.6 million metric tons (equivalent to taking one million cars off the road), contributed $87 million in public health benefits and provided $515 million dollars in climate benefits. It also created jobs and made energy systems more reliable.
When considering changes to Maine’s net metering policies, regulators and lawmakers should proceed with caution. Any methodology used to assess and quantify the full range of benefits and costs of net metering must be transparent and rigorous, accounting for the significant economic, societal and environmental benefits that result from solar proliferation incentivized by net metering, as well as the potential effects on the state’s economy and jobs were it to be reversed.
The truth is that solar saves money and has the potential to benefit all Maine residents, bolstering the state’s economy while meeting our climate goals.
Gary Friedmann is a Bar Harbor Town Council member who has been working to solarize Mount Desert Island since 2013.
By Gary Friedmann