The Maine Legislature shouldn’t allow the Public Advocate to hinder efforts to grow and strengthen the community solar program.

May 23, 2023 Portland Press Herald

By Kate Daniel, Coalition for Community Solar Access

Maine’s Office of the Public Advocate (OPA) is wrong about the cost of community solar in Maine. They’re using exaggerated projections to unfairly place the blame for Maine’s ever-increasing power bills on the solar industry, while the real culprit — tremendous spikes in the cost of natural gas — gets a pass.

It’s time to have an honest debate about community solar in Maine.

First, let’s talk about scale. When the OPA tells you that community solar is driving up the cost of your electric bill, they’re simply not telling the truth. The fact is, despite the great forward strides solar has taken recently, it still barely scratches the surface of the overall cost of energy in Maine. Without a doubt, the biggest driver of the cost of electricity is natural gas, which caused a 42% increase in our electric bills this year. 

Next, this effort to gut community solar is completely at odds with the mission of the Office of the Public Advocate. The OPA was created to serve as a bulwark for consumers against the daunting influence of Maine’s multinational utility monopolies. Yet the OPA right now seems to be doing the opposite. OPA is using untested and unscrutinized  financial projections created by CMP and Versant, despite a long history of dramatically incorrect projections from these utilities. These projections are more than double realistic industry projections, and that’s not an accident. The increase in projected cost of community solar development means a massive increase in what CMP and Versant can charge ratepayers. So while OPA is using these figures to falsely malign the solar industry, Maine’s utilities are using them to make more money while raising your electric bill even higher.

FInally, let’s look at the OPA’s plan to eliminate the community solar program. The OPA this week proposed legislation that would effectively shut down solar development in Maine, throwing millions of dollars in investment into disarray. OPA’s proposal would harm the 23,000 existing community solar consumers with no plan to address the costs they may incur, and eliminate the opportunity for Mainers of all income levels to use clean, affordable renewable energy. OPA’s plan would make Mainers even more dependent on the wild swings in natural gas pricing that have driven bills through the roof. And the retroactive changes to  signed contracts would become a red flag for future investors in our state, from all industries.

None of this makes any sense for Maine’s ratepayers, or for our state overall. Governor Mills has put forward ambitious goals for transitioning Maine to renewable energy, and community solar is a key component in that transition. Not only does community solar allow easy conversion to renewable energy, but it allows lower-income consumers to participate without costly investment. And thanks to the Legislature’s bill to jump-start solar development, the industry has become a major driver in local economies. The Governor’s Distributed Generation Working Group released a study in January showing their revised framework for community solar would return a whopping $2.77 to Maine for every $1 invested.

Community solar has already had a positive impact on Maine — supporting hundreds of good-paying jobs, and driving more than $60 million into our local economies, while moving Maine forward toward our climate goals. And the future looks even brighter — with advances in energy storage, the availability of unprecedented federal funding, and continued refinement of the program, the cost of community solar will continue to decrease. This means lower electricity bills for consumers, and an end to Maine’s dependence on fossil fuels.

The OPA plan slams the door on all of this. We urge the Legislature to reject the misinformation coming from the OPA, and to continue their work to strengthen and grow the community solar program.