Editorial: Solar struggles

Thanks in large part to Solarize MDI, an effort of A Climate to Thrive, Mount Desert Island’s solar electricity generating capacity has more than doubled in recent years.

Meanwhile, Maine has been fiercely debating how to regulate solar power installations, how each array interacts with “the grid” and how the owners of solar arrays are to be compensated for the power they generate.

Power companies are regulated through the Public Utilities Commission (PUC). This oversight includes solar because decisions about rates and metering for solar can affect other ratepayers. Hence the concern from former Governor LePage about “subsidizing the cost of solar panels at the expense of the elderly and poor.”

That’s not an unreasonable worry. It is important to get as close as possible to a system in which everyone pays his or her fair share. But the market for electricity is already rife with ways in which some customers subsidize others.

Take “time of use,” for example. Power companies can buy electricity for about five cents a kilowatt-hour much of the time. Rates are lower at night when there’s less load on the system: offices are shuttered, lights are off, appliances and machinery are less likely to be in use. But at very peak times, such as midafternoon during a summer heat wave, a utility may be paying $1 a kilowatt-hour. That all gets averaged in and our electric bills show a rate of 16 cents a kilowatt-hour.

That means if one resident always does laundry in the middle of the night, and another always does hers at midday, the former is subsidizing the latter’s expensive midday laundry habit since both pay the same rate.

So, while critics like to say that solar is not reliable enough to be a major contributor to Maine’s energy mix, it’s also the case that solar power is available at times when the market really needs it.

Some advocates say solar array owners should get full retail price for the energy going back into the grid from their systems. But if that were taken to the extreme and everyone was generating electricity, the utility would have no money to answer the phone or repair storm damage. Unless they’re off-grid and using batteries, solar array owners are using the transmission and distribution systems. They should pay something for it; otherwise someone else is paying their share of the distribution cost.

Modernizing Maine’s electrical system will include changes to hardware, organizational structures, laws and regulations for decades to come. Distributed power generation, such as increased solar, is a step forward. Fair pricing and regulatory regimes will be a constant struggle, so it’s a good thing we on MDI have such thoughtful and engaged representatives and advocates at the table.


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