Don’t Believe the Hype: Solar Power Benefits All Mainers

Emily Green | @EmilyG_Maine

Mainers like solar power, they want more of it, and they don’t want to change how solar panel owners are paid for it. That’s the take-home message of comments Maine residents submitted to the state’s Public Utilities Commission in its current proceeding to review how solar power customers are reimbursed for the power they produce. The comments submitted to date have extolled the virtues of solar power and support continuing the current reimbursement model, at least until the Legislature takes another look at statewide solar energy policy.

In stark contrast, the LePage administration and Maine utility companies argue that the current system is unfair to families and businesses that don’t have solar panels. That position is not only unsupported by data but is also completely at odds with the well-documented, substantial financial benefits that solar panels, backed by net energy billing, offer to all Mainers.

The Benefits of Solar Power

Solar panels cut costs. But not just for those who install them – for all Mainers! Solar provides energy right when we need it most, reducing our “peak” demand. Peaks generally occur on summer afternoons, when temperatures run high and air conditioners are blasting. Traditionally, the most expensive and dirtiest power generators have been called upon to turn on and produce electricity during these peak demand hours. But, fortunately, the sun usually shines brightly during these same dog-day afternoons. That means we can increasingly turn to local, inexpensive solar power to meet this peak demand, instead of costly, polluting power plants – saving you, me, and all Mainers money.

But that’s not all. A portion of your electricity bill comes from building and maintaining the grid’s transmission lines, wires, and transformers. By generating power close to home right where it’s needed – in your town or even your neighborhood ­– solar lowers these shared costs for everyone.

And last but not least, let’s not forget that solar doesn’t pollute. This translates to actual societal benefits that have a monetary value, according to the Public Utilities Commission’s own 2015 Value of Solar study.

Net Energy Billing = More Solar

So solar power benefits all Mainers by lowering our electric bills. Now how do we get even more of it on the grid? Through net energy billing, also known as net metering.

Net metering is crucial to the development and growth of solar power in Maine. Under net metering, solar customers pay for the total kilowatt hours of energy they use, minus the number of kilowatt hours their solar panels produce and send back to the electric grid. Solar customers’ electricity meters effectively (or actually!) run backwards when the sun is shining.

Under this simple system, solar customers pay the utility company for the energy they use, and the utility reimburses them for the energy they produce. This financial compensation model has already made solar panels a more affordable investment for many Mainers; maintaining this system will ensure Mainers can continue to install solar panels on their homes and businesses.

The Cost-shifting Myth

With all the benefits that solar brings, you might wonder why Governor LePage and Maine utilities oppose it. Well, they say it’s because solar unfairly shifts costs from folks with panels on their roofs to folks without them. But that simply isn’t true.

Their argument is premised on unsupported assumptions about rates and fixed charges. For instance, solar opponents claim solar panel owners avoid certain fees, such as transmission and distribution costs, forcing the rest of us to make up the difference in our bills. But utility companies derive those fees from averages and estimates, not actual costs. So it isn’t necessarily true that those are transferred to, and paid by, other consumers. And solar opponents have yet to offer up any actual proof otherwise.

Perhaps more importantly, even if non-solar customers are shouldering certain costs of their neighbors with solar panels, the reality is that local solar power is worth far more than the retail rate panel owners receive as reimbursement under the current scheme – more than two times more, according to the Commission’s 2015 Value of Solar study. So solar customers are feeding a greater value of energy into the grid than they’re being paid for, which translates to savings for all electricity customers.

So What’s the Current Status?

Allegations of cost-shifting form the crux of the criticisms lobbed at net energy billing in the ongoing proceeding before the Utilities Commission. Yet these allegations remain unsubstantiated. It is therefore critical that the proponents of these arguments prove their claims. That’s why CLF, and a group of other solar stakeholders, have asked the Commission to request concrete evidence to support these claims – and to subject that evidence to public scrutiny before making a formal decision of whether to revise the net energy billing rules.

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