The Maine Public Utilities Commission (MPUC) on Tuesday voted to approve electricity rate increases associated with a program that hikes rate costs for Maine residents and businesses in order to subsidize large solar facilities.
Mainers will pay $168 million more for their electricity over the next year to back the so-called community solar program.
The Office of the Public Advocate (OPA) has estimated that those costs will increase to $220 million per year by 2025.
Instead, that money is redistributed to solar corporations and subscribers, with the solar firms taking an estimated 85 percent of the cut, according to the OPA.
A Maine Wire review of MPUC records has found that 88 percent of the companies registered with the state as participants in the community solar program are not based in Maine.
The rate-hike arrangement was created in 2019 when lawmakers voted to expand Maine’s Net Energy Billing (NEB) program to include large 5MW solar facilities.
Smaller rooftop solar operators had been able for years to sell power into the grid, but the costs to ratepayers of those operations were negligible. The 2019 rule change opened the program to solar facilities that cover 15 to 20 acres.
Nearly 300MW of solar panel capacity came online last year, and Maine’s utilities are required to buy the power they generate at an above market rate — a rate that increases if, for example, the cost of natural gas-generated power increases. Those higher costs are then passed along to ratepayers.
The program was created based on the belief that subsidizing solar power in Maine would reduce Maine’s greenhouse gas emissions and thereby lower the temperature of the planet, though state officials haven’t been able to produce any evidence that this is true.
In the 131st legislature, Republican lawmakers on the Energy, Utilities, and Technology Committee introduced several proposals that would rein in solar development under the community solar program.
Ratepayers have not yet begun to feel the pinch of community solar costs, so the hope was that the legislature might address the issue before complaints begin to boil over this summer.
Democratic lawmakers have taken a dim view of the Republican proposals, although there was some indication that watered-down language limiting future solar development may find its way into a Democratic bill.