What if you could power your home or business with sunshine and save money on your electricity bill?
That’s the offer of Maine’s community solar program, an offer that tens of thousands of Mainers have taken advantage of since the state expanded the program into its current form in 2019.
More money for you, less yucky fossil fuels burning. You’re happy, Al Gore’s happy — what’s not to love?
But despite the promise of Maine’s growing community solar industry, there remains no such thing as a free lunch. And the Office of the Public Advocate (OPA) has grown increasingly vocal this year about the high cost of the program and other serious drawbacks for subscribers and ratepayers.
The OPA has estimated this year that Net Energy Billing (NEB), the mechanism used to subsidize community solar, will cost Maine ratepayers $220 million by 2025.
“Most of these costs will be recovered from CMP and Versant ratepayers in upcoming stranded cost rates that are set by the Maine [Public Utilities Commission) PUC,” the OPA has said. “The remainder will be recovered from those ratepayers in transmission rates set by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.”
CMP and Versant, Maine’s two largest utilities, are required to buy community solar output at a premium and then sell the energy at a loss on energy markets. They recoup those losses by increasing costs for everyone else through what are known as “stranded costs.”
NEB was used for solar for years before a bipartisan group of lawmakers expanded it in 2019 to include solar developments up to 5MW, but before that, it only applied to smaller rooftop solar setups that typically generate 5-20 kilowatts.
The program allowed homeowners with rooftop solar to sell surplus power into the grid and accumulate credits to purchase electricity when their solar panels were not sufficient.
The 2019 law modified NEB rules such that CMP and Versant are now required to give large solar developments the same option previously given to small home solar operators.
To put that change into perspective, Maine went from subsidizing photovoltaic panels on rooftops to subsidizing facilities that cover 15-25 acres, or as much as 18 football fields.
The amount of electricity the new community solar facilities generate is therefore several orders of magnitude larger.
That means the increased costs via NEB — or profits, depending on your perspective — are also several orders of magnitude larger.
By extending NEB to larger solar developments, lawmakers established a lucrative subsidy for industrial-sized solar facilities and set off a nationwide green energy gold rush.
That gold has come out of Mainers’ pockets.
According to ISO-New England, the nonprofit that manages Maine’s electricity grid, Maine ended 2022 with 8,583 solar installations with a total capacity of 295 MW — 259 MW hooked into the grid by CMP and 36 MW by Versant.
More than half of that (169.5 MW) was installed in 2022.
In a recent report, ISO-New England predicted that Maine’s solar capacity could increase to between 1,000 MW to 1,500 MW, which would mean similar cost increases if NEB policies remain unchanged.
Public Advocate Bill Harwood has found that, in some cases, community solar operations can charge more than twice what it costs to generate the electricity.
“What we’re paying is something around 20 cents a kilowatt hour for all of the solar energy that comes out of the program,” Harwood said in a phone interview. “This is what ratepayers pay.”
“And there is lots of evidence and information that suggests the actual cost of the solar industry to generate it is less than 10 cents. So you immediately start with the question, why would ratepayers pay 20 cents for, you know, a quart of milk, a pair of shoes, whatever you pick, when you can buy this exact same thing for 10 cents,” said Harwood.
The result of the artificial costs imposed by the Legislature is that CMP and Versant have had to hike rates on customers in order to pay community solar developers and subscribers. Because the price for solar is also pegged to the standard offer price, increased natural gas generation costs can also send NEB costs upward. Hence, the higher electricity bills Maine homeowners have paid in recent years.
Those increased costs weren’t advertised front-and-center when the Legislature first approved of the scheme: the fiscal note attached to the 2019 bill (LD 1711) estimated the cost for taxpayers at roughly $850,000 from 2019 to 2022.
But as with many proposals that emerge from Augusta, that note didn’t tell the whole story, and few predicted at the time that the program would eventually cost Maine ratepayers more than $220 million annually.
What’s more, Harwood is fielding an increasing volume of complaints about the firms that are reaping windfall profits off the subsidies by buying, developing, or managing solar facilities and subscribers.
So what are the benefits of the program that adds $200-$300 to most Maine household’s electricity bills?
That’s hard to say, in part because of the lack of data around subscribers, sponsors, and marketers.
Harwood estimates that just 15 percent of the NEB costs are returned to solar subscribers in the form of lower energy bills. The other 85 percent goes to solar developers, operators, and companies that manage subscribers and billing.
The OPA doesn’t have solid figures on how many customers have signed up for the benefits, including the NEB residential program and a similarly functioning tariff program for businesses. But it estimates that the programs have a combined 43,000 subscribers.
Put differently, Maine ratepayers will be paying $220 million per year by 2025 so that roughly 43,000 homes and businesses can get a discount on their solar electricity.
Where is the rest of the money going?
According to a Maine Wire review of Public Utilities Commission (PUC) records, the vast majority of firms registered as sponsors or marketers in the “community” solar program are in fact out-of-state companies.
That runs contrary to what activists promised when LD 1711 was originally under consideration. One of the main pitches was the idea of keeping energy dollars in Maine.
“We have abundant sunshine that gives us the opportunity to create our own solar power and keep energy dollars in Maine,” said Beth Hearn from the “Environmental Priorities Coalition.”
Of the 384 companies currently registered with the MPUC as NEB project sponsors or related entities, only 45 (less than 12 percent) are based — at least on paper — in Maine.
Massachusetts is home 27 percent of Maine’s community solar sponsors and marketers, while 12.5 percent are from Minnesota and 15.6 percent are from either New York or California.
Neither the MPUC nor the OPA know how much of the total NEB cost increase is flowing to a particular company, but it’s fair to say the lion’s share of the money will continue to flow out of the state of Maine to solar investment companies rather than remaining in Maine.
“They essentially saw the opportunity with the subsidy, there was a substantial opportunity to make a profit,” Harwood said.
“And so a number of out-of-state investment funds are owning many of the about 1,000 projects that are either in operation or under development. And we don’t know who owns them all and how concentrated the ownership is,” he said.
NET ENERGY BILLING REFORM
Public Advocate Harwood ruffled feathers this year with his projection that community solar and NEB are increasingly causing Mainers’ utility bills to soar.
But his testimony to the Energy, Utilities, and Technology Committee in April on a bill from Rep. Steve Foster (R-Dexter) that would have eliminated NEB was even more devastating for backers of the scheme than OPA’s eye-popping cost projection.
Harwood highlighted other major problems with Maine’s approach to subsidizing solar power through NEB.
“The NEB program suffers from three flaws not directly related [to] the amount of the direct subsidy,” Harwood said.
“First, there was not thoughtful planning about where these projects should be built,” he said.
As the result of the lack of planning on the Legislature’s part, solar facilities have mostly sprung up where cheap land can be found near a electrical substation.
“As a result, many of these projects under development are located in places where the utility has insufficient capacity to interconnect these projects and/or more energy is not needed,” he said.
In other words, the solar infrastructure was built not according to what made sense for Maine’s residents, the power grid, power consumption, or even the environment, but only what was best for solar developers’ bottom lines.
When solar facilities are constructed where power demand is low, CMP and Versant must upgrade their infrastructure to ensure that local residents don’t fall victim to power overloads. That’s an expensive process that doesn’t benefit CMP, Versant, or their customers, and the additional complications of integrating such solar facilities has produced further costs that are also passed along to ratepayers.
“Second, the program does not capture the value of the renewable energy being generated by these projects,” he said.
Harwood pointed out that solar facility sponsors retain and sell the Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) generated by community solar projects.
That means a firm from Boston or Washington, D.C. can take the RECs and sell them to a corporation as a carbon offset, which adds another lucrative income stream to the projects in addition to the subsidy.
“Accordingly, the Maine ratepayers participating in the program are technically not using renewable energy and the program does little to help Maine achieve its renewable energy targets, despite the exorbitant cost of the program,” he said.
Harwood’s second criticism of community solar and NEB is an important one, because the expense of the entire program was justified because it would reduce Maine’s carbon footprint and slow global temperature increases. Even today, the Mills Administration and Democratic lawmakers insist that NEB is worth the cost in higher energy bills because of the environmental benefits.
But if the RECs from a NEB project are sold to another state, then the system Maine uses to assess progress toward our “climate goals” accounts for that project as if it were in that state, not in Maine. So a solar facility in Augusta may actually be reducing the carbon footprint, on paper, of a business in Worcester.
Despite Harwood’s testimony on net energy billing, Democratic lawmakers could not get behind Foster’s bill as it was originally proposed.
Foster said Tuesday at a press conference with Senate Republicans that he had worked with the OPA to craft a new compromise bill that will place limits on net energy billing rather than doing away with the program altogether.
The proposed limit on NEB solar projects would be 660 KW, meaning the largest projects currently benefiting would be excluded.
The bill would cap the number of subscribers to a given project at 10 starting in 2023.
The compromise legislation would also grant the PUC the authority to review how much solar costs to generate versus how much Mainers are paying for it and set rates accordingly.
Foster said the overarching goal of his legislation was to reduce electricity rates for Maine ratepayers.
The alternative could be dire.
“We could end up with the highest per kilowatt hour rate in the nation here in the state of Maine, something I never would have believed just a few short years ago,” Foster said.
But if Maine’s electricity rates go down, as Foster wants, then that means the profits solar companies have reaped will go away, so the compromise bill is destined to receive industry opposition.
In his testimony in April, Public Advocate Harwood also questioned the wisdom of allowing individuals to collect benefits under the program when they have not invested any money into a project or provided any land for the project to be built.
“For most community projects, these ‘subscribing ratepayers’ have not provided the land on which the project is sited or invested any money in the project. All they did was volunteer to accept a portion of the subsidy so the project developer could meet this inexplicable regulatory standard that there be a minimum number of subscribing ratepayers to qualify as an NEB project,” Harwood said.
“And like most other inexplicable regulatory requirements, this creates a lot of confusion and controversy,” he said.
The confusion and controversy associated with Maine’s community solar program is evident in complaints Harwood’s office has fielded so far this year.
The Maine Wire obtained public records from the OPA concerning complaints that it has received since 2019 about community solar and NEB. A review of those records shows that complaints about the program have increased sharply in 2023 as more solar facilities have come online.
Last year, the OPA recorded 57 phone calls from subscribers about community solar and net energy billing. From Jan. 1 to May 18, the office has recorded 146 calls.
While some of those phone calls are people who are curious about the program and want to learn more, the OPA notes indicate that the vast majority are complaints from unhappy subscribers. It’s also worth noting that these numbers do not reflect customers who may have called CMP, Versant, or a solar company to air their photovoltaic-related grievance.
The complaints suggest that some subscribers feel hoodwinked into subscriptions by door-to-door salesmen and often have trouble backing out of subscriptions or understanding their bills. A few are elderly people who feel like they’ve been taken advantage of.
“Someone came to my house and signed me up for solar, supposed to save me 15%. Bills I’ve been getting are 3-4 times higher than supposed to be. Haven’t paid them because I want to pay for usage. They said they charge by allocation. 4000 kwh worth of credits I will never be able to use; will run our at end of year. I need some help,” read the notes OPA took for one complaint.
Another note reads: “Spent day on the phone with CMP and solar – cancelled online back in Nov 3 – last time withdraw would be Feb, amount 90.31. But it was supposed to revert back to CMP – still withdrawing from my account. Should I block my credit card? 2 more payments than supposed to. 80yo, need help with this.”
Three out-of-state companies — Nautilus Solar Energy (New Jersey), Nexamp Solar, LLC (Massachusetts), and Arcadia Power, Inc. (Washington, DC) — are mentioned frequently.
All three companies advertise nice sounding pitches about investing in the local community and helping the environment.
Arcadia Power’s website confidently declares that it’s mission is “to stop climate change by breaking the fossil fuel monopoly,” though it does admit: “*Individual customer experiences may differ.“
Some of the companies explicitly promise zero downside to subscribing.
Nautilus, for example, says subscribers will get “No Pain. All gain.”
The site even has a section for the incredulous: “It seems too good to be true… What’s the catch?”
“There’s no catch…guaranteed!” the website claims.
NexAmp’s site makes a similar claim in an FAQ section: “What’s the catch? … No catch. We believe in doing right by people and, well, the world.”
But at least a few subscribers have found that subscribing to community solar comes with headaches.
Here’s one complaint from the OPA files:
“Problem w Solar company – need help – wants to get away from them. Starting to get billed twice, one from Solar, one from CMP. Three years ago, someone knocked on door, like a fool I got connected. Never heard from them year and a half. Called them, no longer in business, got transferred to Nautilus, didn’t even know it. Didn’t even realize I was with them. 6 months behind, finishing paying for last year. Can’t do it, can’t understand. Talked to Nautilus this morning, takes 3 months, lose my credits. Gave me the runaround. Don’t have a signed contract with them.”
“12 yrs, consistent bill, supplier changed Jan 30, claiming to be from Arcadia. Everything they told us was a lie. Didn’t agree to anything, didn’t sign anything. I want them off my bill, don’t know how to contact them. Does not want to pay them, they lied, took advantage.”
“Getting bills from two solar companies – we have an account Riverside Solar LLC – managed by Syncarpha latest bill $106. Has spoken to someone from that company, they bought Riverside Solar, doing their billing. Yesterday, got a bill from Nexamp, never heard of, want $165. Found out from CMP, bill they were submitting was costing me about 21 cents per kwh, more than Standard Offer. Possible wife has signed up for 2 without knowing it.”
“Complain about Nautilus. Lied to me about solar credits, now getting bill higher than old electric bill – rip-off to ppl of Maine”
“Had signed up with NexAmp in Sept and they are not letting me cancel my contract. Already paid $200, now billing me for same time period again. They told me I have to have CMP take it off the bill. CMP says NexAmp needs to cancel. Total quandary. Please help.”
“Called Next Amp to cancel. They said it would take 3 months due to CMP. Called CMP, they say it’s Next Amp that takes so long. Doesn’t seem reasonable to keep paying for months. Please help.”
“Having problem w Arcadia Solar Group – billing fluctuates, not happy – gotten into scam- have looked online at comments – gotten two bills -not sure if paid – pushed reply to email can’t opt out”
“Bill from Nautilus – never signed up for anything, where is this coming from?”
“Called Next Amp to cancel. They said it would take 3 months due to CMP. Called CMP, they say it’s Next Amp that takes so long. Doesn’t seem reasonable to keep paying for months. Please help.”
“Has signed up with Next Amp, got a letter that it was going to start up. Got a $13.71 CMP bill but no bill from Next Amp, waiting for other shoe to drop. Can’t reach them despite emails and calls, doesn’t want bills mounting up.”
“Next Amp emailed me a bill – do not know who they are – CMP says don’t know who they are – cancelled it, not paying unless reflected on CMP bill – wants signed contract – husband doesn’t remember signing, I didn’t sign”
As part of MPUC’s oversight of the program, NEB beneficiaries must disclose whether they’ve had any enforcement actions taken against them in the past five year.
The vast majority of the companies have not, but Nautilus settled one complaint with OPA this month.
The Summit, N.J.-based company settled with the OPA regarding a complaint that the company wasn’t following Maine’s customer rights laws when it comes to solar subscriptions.
Customers are supposed to be allowed to cancel a community solar subscription within five days of receiving their first bill, but the OPA found Nautilus wasn’t facilitating those cancellations properly.
Under the terms of the agreement, Nautilus was required to identify all customers who had tried and failed to cancel their accounts after receiving their first bill.
Nautilus did not respond to an inquiry asking how many of those customers it had identified.
MAINE’S FIGHT AGAINST GLOBAL WARMING
When LD 1711 was up for debate in the legislature, Gov. Janet Mills’ staff emphasized the environmental benefits of the bill.
Dan Burgess, the head of Mills’ Energy Office, said the bill would “reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, reduce emissions and grow the clean energy economy.”
Several environmental activists echoed the claims.
“After eight years of delay and denial, Maine is once again taking on forcefully the severe challenge of greenhouse gas ( GHG ) pollution of the atmosphere,” said Danny Gallaudet of the Sierra Club of Maine, adding that community solar would be “key” to reducing Maine’s emissions.
Even the “Maine Council of Churches” got in on the act.
“Over the years growing numbers of congregations across Maine have been standing up to the moral challenge of accelerating climate change and its ravages on our environment and those most vulnerable to its impacts the poor, children, the elderly, the sick, and other living beings,” said Anne D. Burt, in support of LD 1711.
Gov. Mills’ Energy Office continues to support subsidizing large solar facilities through NEB.
Caroline Colan, one of the governor’s legislative liaisons, testified against Foster’s bill.
Colan said the Mills Administration was “sensitive” to the costs of the program but that ending NEB would impact tens of thousands of customers and undermine the fight against climate change.
“Net energy billing has stimulated substantial solar development, increasing the volume of new renewable energy in Maine and contributing to our state renewable energy and emission reduction goals,” Colan said.
“Distributed generation resources will play an important role in the state’s achievement of greenhouse gas reduction requirements, renewable energy requirements, and goals for continued growth of the clean energy sector,” she said.
So how much will community solar reduce Maine’s carbon emissions?
That’s hard to say.
The Maine Wire contacted the Maine Renewable Energy Association, which represents many businesses in Maine’s solar industry, to ask how much the community solar program has lowered carbon emissions and, therefore, global temperatures.
They did not respond.
The Maine Wire also asked the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) the same question: How much have Maine’s greenhouse gas emissions decreased thanks to community solar?
“We do not have any estimates related to carbon emissions reduction related to community solar,” a PUC spokesperson said, adding that the Governor’s Energy Office may have those numbers.
The Governor’s Energy Office (GEO) did not respond to an email asking how much community solar has lowered carbon emissions and what the corresponding decrease in global temperatures may be.
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection also did not respond to inquiries asking how much cooler the planet will now be because of LD 1711.
The closest attempt at a real answer to the question came from a spokesperson for the Washington, D.C.-based Arcadia, a firm that manages solar subscriptions for 10,000 Maine residents and thousands of business owners. The firm manages 130 MW in capacity.
“Based on the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas equivalencies calculator, once all are operating, the solar farms subscribed by Arcadia customers in Maine will eliminate more than 127,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions per year,” he said.
GREENHOUSE GAS MATH
In the absence of any official information from the Mills Administration about the emissions reductions attributable to community solar, a little math can help estimate the potential changes to Maine’s carbon footprint.
According to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s “9th Report on Progress toward GHG Reduction Goals,” Maine’s total carbon emissions were estimated at 24.2 MMTCO2e or the equivalent of 24.2 million metric tons.
According to the EPA’s GHG calculator, Maine’s 2022 solar capacity of 295 MW represents the equivalent of 305,442 metric tons of CO2 per year. Or roughly 1.26 percent of Maine’s estimated annual emissions.
If Maine hits ~1,000 MW of solar capacity by 2025, as ISO-New England predicts, the EPA calculator suggests the equivalent CO2 reduction would be 1,034,676 metric tons annually. Or 4.3 percent of Maine’s annual emissions, per DEP.
To put those numbers into perspective, the bombing of the Nordstream pipeline in 2022 by some unidentified country is estimated to have released the equivalent of 15 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.
A few caveats complicate the calculation as well.
First, none of these calculations take into consideration the carbon emissions associated with manufacturing these panels — which mostly occurs in China, a country not generally known for environmentalism, — transporting them to Maine, and installing them.
Second, the emissions numbers are gross numbers that do not take into account the amount of carbon sequestered by Maine’s forests. Maine’s 17.5 million acres of forest sequester roughly 140 million metric tons of carbon per year, meaning Maine’s carbon footprint is already net negative.
While one study has found that an acre of solar panels reduces carbon emissions by more than one acre of forest, the lost sequestration associated with not allowing a forest to grow where a solar facility has been constructed must also be considered when measuring net emissions reductions.
But the really important question for figuring out the impact of community solar is whether adding solar to Maine’s grid has allowed or will allow a one-to-one reduction in power produced by sources that generate emissions.
In other words, will the natural gas power generators Maine’s grid relies upon burn less natural gas because of increased solar power provided to the grid?
Whether Maine will actually eliminate any CO2 from the atmosphere because of the solar boom, as solar companies and environmentalists claim, depends on this factor more than whatever number the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas equivalencies calculator spits out.
While it’s true that that refraining from burning 295 MW of fossil fuels would result in an equivalent reduction of emissions, solar subscribers in Maine have no way of knowing if the solar surge has actually led to a decrease in the burning of fossil fuels.
ISO-New England does study emissions associated with power generation, but the most recent studies only examine emissions from electricity production going back to 2021.
In that report, published this year, ISO-New England says emissions went up from 2020 to 2021. If community solar has led to any reduction in the emissions associated with New England’s power grid, that may only become apparent several years from now.
On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart (R-Aroostook) spoke in support of Foster’s revised bill to place limits on NEB, saying lawmakers now have a choice to make between continuing with the status quo and high energy costs or reining in the solar gold rush.
“Lawmakers have a choice to make,” said Stewart,
“We can support modest limitations to Net Energy Billing and decrease electricity rates for all Mainers,” he said. “Or we can continue on this current course and allow out-of-state solar investors to take hundreds of millions of dollars per year out of Mainers’ pockets.”